Does every book need a happy ending?

Happy endings. Rachel ditches Paris for an overdue reunion with Ross, Harry defeats Voldemort and survives (J.K. Rowling makes her own rules), and Tiny Tim makes a full recovery – sorry for the spoilers. Worldwide, we all switch off the television or turn over the last page with a warm – dare I say tingle – of relief and contentedness. As though it were our own lives spelled out on the page, we sleep easy knowing that no matter how many fictional deaths we faced along the way, order was restored in the literary world.

It’s a surprise to no one that human nature longs to read a happy ending, and any author will agree that writing love and good fortune into their characters’ lives is equally as satisfying. But if we only ever immerse ourselves in the fairytale-esque worlds that exist in 9/10 of the fictional works on the bookshelf, are we missing a huge part of the literary experience? If we stop to consider what makes a book stand out, it certainly seems that way:

Happy endings are predictable. The girl ends up with the best friend she didn’t realise she was in love with and the villain is defeated; whether it’s set in a teenager’s high school world or the turbulent relationships of an adult marriage, we never escape these storylines, and if we’re outsmarting the author from page one, what are we really gaining from the other 300? Even tear-inducing and surprising books like My Sister’s Keeper end with an emphatic silver lining to cling to (hint: not the same ending as the film). The books that ignite a passion in us need a spark, a sharp twist, the kind of unexpected turns that leave us staring half-empty and half-aghast for ten minutes after the final chapter. Sometimes that means that things don’t pan out perfectly, or even nearly; those are the books that truly stick with us.

Sometimes that means that things don’t pan out perfectly, or even nearly; those are the books that truly stick with us.

I don’t remember my first happy ending but I do remember the first time I read a book without one. The Clown, Leila Vennewitz’s translation of Heinrich Böll’s Ansicht eines Clowns, was grippingly empty and raw. To describe it in simple terms would not differ enormously from describing the dreary ramblings of lonely, unpublished memoirs, but the novel possesses an invisible quality that makes it harrowing. The retrospective narrator, Hans, mentally retraces his life from an undervalued son to a successful, and then utterly unsuccessful, clown in Germany, narrating with it the story of his conflict-torn relationship with Marie. At the very start of the book she has already left him, and the reader spends every page thereon waiting desperately for her return. We owe our desperation to the totally convincing and stark narration, which suck our emotions into a vacuum of Hans’ despair.

While it may sound like a terribly gloomy experience, reading The Clown opens your heart and your eyes to the sheer power of literature. Arguably, the meaning of literature, if ever there was one, is to feel something, and with this novel there’s no doubt about that. It’s a book of nothingness that makes you feel everything. And I believe that in a twisted way there’s something very comforting about that, as Böll provides a platform for our own disappointments and heartbreaks; solace can be just as comforting as hope.

Solace can be just as comforting as hope.

In our real lives, not everything works out perfectly, and while it’s useful to escape into a world where it does, it’s also refreshing to discover one that we can all understand. That is the crux of the novel’s success.