Many works of fiction explore what it is to be human. An honest look at human behavior can reveal the insecurities beneath polished exteriors and the unacknowledged emotions that play into the decisions we make and the ways we treat each other.
However, my favorite books are usually the ones that leave me feeling hopeful and a little bit inspired at the end. Following are three very different novels that explore the messier sides of being human while also revealing something of the brightest parts.
The Humans by Matt Haig
Sent to earth to impersonate a Cambridge professor in order to prevent the professor’s recent mathematical breakthrough from becoming part of human knowledge, this is the story of an alien being who is thrown into human life. Matt Haig’s writing is funny and engaging and the protagonist’s first experiences on earth are mostly humorous misreadings of cultural norms. Initially, he’s repulsed by what he sees and it’s hard not to sympathize with his perspective as he reflects on the absurdities of human behavior and our willful ignorance of so much of what is happening in the world beyond our immediate surroundings.
However, the more time the protagonist spends as a human, the more often he finds himself inexplicably moved – by music, by poetry, a caring gesture, the companionship of a dog. Through the lens of this alien narrator, Haig peels back all of the strangeness and ugliness in human behavior to reveal the complexity and the vibrancy that are at the heart of what it is to be a living, breathing human being.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
One day, eighty-two-year-old Etta leaves her home is Saskatchewan and sets out to see the ocean, travelling on foot across the country to Nova Scotia. She leaves behind Otto, her husband of many years, and Russell, a friend who has loved her since they were young. Etta’s memory is starting to slip and she often finds herself lost in her husband’s war-time memories, believing she is marching through Europe with an army instead of through the Canadian wilderness.
The novel’s point of view shifts frequently, following Etta as she travels, then moving to the perspective of Otto as he awaits her return, then traveling back to the 1940s when Etta and Otto were falling in love and facing the realities of war. Interspersed throughout are the letters Etta and Otto send each other while Otto is away at war and then again while Etta is on her journey to the sea. The novel’s threads weave together to give the reader a sense of the fullness of these lives quietly and generously lived and the beauty and breadth of these relationships that span so many years.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven takes place before, during, and after a flu outbreak that wipes out most of the global population. There’s the pre-outbreak story of Arthur, a famous Hollywood actor who has married and divorced three women and rarely sees his young son. There’s Jeevan, an aspiring paramedic who stocks up on shopping carts full of food and tries to wait out the pandemic in his brother’s apartment. And there’s Kristen, who was eight years old when the virus hit. Kristen has survived for twenty years in the lawless post-flu landscape and has become a traveling Shakespearean actor, bringing beauty and something of the lost world to the small communities that dot the former United States. I expected Station Eleven to be a disturbing, difficult read – and at times it is. But St. John Mandel’s clean, graceful writing gives pleasure to the reading experience. Her characters feel complex and real as they try to live their lives as best they can in very different circumstances. Although Station Eleven delves into some of the uglier sides of human nature, what struck me most was how it illuminates the goodness in people – the generosity, the braveness, the desire to create, the capacity to love.