The science on addiction is always evolving. We now know more than ever about what causes some people to be more susceptible to addiction, the psycho-social circumstances that give rise to addiction developing, and the physical and chemical differences in the bodies and brains of people who experience addiction. And yet, it feels like there’s still so much we don’t know. Literature is another way to understand addiction, to understand its impact on people and communities. Here are fifteen books about addiction that offer a variety of perspectives.
Dry by Augusten Burroughs
Augusten Burroughs has lived a lot of life – from his strange and traumatic childhood to his coming out as a “witch” in adulthood – all of which he has detailed in his memoirs and essay collections. One of the most poignant and moving accounts, punctuated with his unique brand of humour, is Dry. This memoir covers his ten-year battle with alcohol addiction and treatment (though he does note, in the introduction, that some events have been condensed and “recreated” for literary purposes – why let the truth get in the way of a good story?). After an intervention by his co-workers, Burroughs entered a treatment facility, and had to learn to navigate the world newly sober.
Daisy Jones And The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Daisy Jones And The Six is a #BookTok best-seller, a #Bookstagram darling, and responsible for a resurgence in the fashions and music of the ’70s. But readers with a keen eye have picked up its underlying theme about the dangers of addiction, especially in the music industry. Multiple characters in Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel experience addiction, with varying levels of success in attaining and maintaining sobriety. While some reviewers have accused Reid of “glamorising” addiction, others have praised its accurate portrayal of both the highs and the lows. Read my full review of Daisy Jones And The Six here.
The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins
The Girl On The Train is one of those books about addiction that will make you think twice about pouring a glass of wine or mixing a gin and tonic after a hard day. One of the protagonists, Rachel, has had too many hard days to count – and too many drinks to count, too. She often blacks out, with no idea what she’s said or done, or to whom. It’s one of the driving forces in this best-selling thriller, as she tries to piece together her fractured alcohol-soaked memories to figure out what happened to the woman she saw each day from the train window on her commute. Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.
Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
Carrie Fisher didn’t shy away from her iconic role as the Star Wars heroine Princess Leia – even when it drove her to drink. The cover of Wishful Drinking is a perfect demonstration of her self-deprecating good humour that made her world famous, showing “Leia” face down holding a precariously tipped martini glass, next to a scattered pile of pills. She’s unabashed in her re-telling of her experience of addiction, from marriage breakdown to her time in rehab to the death of a friend. She also provides insight into how her bipolar disorder, diagnosed in her 20s, intertwined with her addiction – even when she appeared, to all the world, to be having a great time.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Just as Charles Dickens wrote books that changed our understanding of poverty and the working class in the Victorian era, so does Barbara Kingsolver look set to up-end our perspective on addiction in America. Her adaptation of Dickens’ David Copperfield, Demon Copperhead, shifts the story of the hard-scrabble orphan to contemporary Appalachia. The protagonist battles abuse at the hands of caregivers, housing instability, and barely-there education – largely due to his mother’s persistent addiction(s) – before a series of unfortunate events sees him fall into the clutches of addiction himself. This is set to be one of the most important and captivating books about addiction of the 2020s. Read my full review of Demon Copperhead here.
Monkey Grip by Helen Garner
“Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference? They can both kill you.” So writes Australian literary icon Helen Garner in her debut novel, Monkey Grip. It’s a modern classic of the Australian canon, depicting life and love in Melbourne’s suburbs in the ’70s. Famously, the events and characters of the novel closely resemble those experienced by Garner herself, so they have a strong ring of authenticity. Unfortunately, that includes her falling in love with a heroin addict, and the to-and-fro of their affair. Javo is addicted to smack, Nora is addicted to loving him – even in the face of overwhelming evidence that she will never be able to compete with the high he’s chasing. Read my full review of Monkey Grip here.
You Talk We Die by Judy Ryan
Many of these books about addiction focus on those most intimately acquainted with its experience, the addict and their loved ones. You Talk We Die is one of the rare books that zooms out, and looks at the impact of addiction on the community, and the community’s responsibility in dealing with it. Judy Ryan was simply a resident of a “heroin hot spot” in Melbourne, where she would frequently have to assist people who had overdosed in the otherwise-quiet suburban streets. After two separate inquests recommended the introduction of safe injecting rooms to no avail, Ryan took it upon herself to advocate for them. After years of dedicated service to the cause, a safe injecting facility was established in her community, and the positive effect has rippled outward. Read my full review of You Talk We Die here.
Adèle by Leïla Slimani
Not all addictions revolve around alcohol or drugs. Some, like that experienced by the titular character in Leïla Slimani’s novel Adèle, manifest around essential human experiences or functions – namely, in this case, sex. Adèle is a respected journalist who appears, from the outside, to have a perfect life – husband, kid, and a swish apartment in the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris. It’s all a mirage. Adèle is actually a sex addict, seeking ever-more brutal carnal encounters to satisfy her desperate need. She’s kept her addiction a secret, from her husband and colleagues, but the cracks are beginning to show. The story was translated into English by Sam Taylor. Read my full review of Adèle here.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy is one of the more controversial books about addiction. Readers have criticised author J.D. Vance’s generalisations from his own experience growing up in suburban Ohio, and highlighted his glaring omissions of racism, his reinforcement of stereotypes, and exclusion of existing scholarship on poverty in Appalachia. Still, the memoir is popular and pervasive enough that it’s worth considering. While Vance’s remit is broad – examining the decline of the white middle class in America, with his own family as a case study – the story is clearly deeply personal, and the legacy of addiction and cycles of abuse essential in understanding Vance’s viewpoint.
Misery by Stephen King
Stephen King has been remarkably open about his struggles with addiction, in reality and in his fiction. That’s what makes Misery one of the most truthful books about addiction, despite its fictional characters and setting. King uses the tropes of horror fiction – a vicious captor, a helpless victim, a remote location, cruelty and torture – to represent the “trap” that addicts find themselves in. Worst of all, the protagonist’s predicament is a hell of his own making, being that he ends up trapped immobile in the home of a sadistic nurse as a result of his own drinking (and drunk driving). Just in case the metaphor isn’t clear enough, the victim is also a writer of best-sellers. Read my full review of Misery here.
Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron
Nina Renata Aron begins Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls by pointing out that many books about addiction are focused wholly and solely on the person who is experiencing addiction. Her role, that of the person who loves an addict, is relegated to the background. She tired of being a supporting player in her own life, which is why she wrote this memoir, an unflinching account of her co-dependency. Not only does she love and share a life with “K”, who is addicted to opiates, but she can connect the dots between their relationship and the addictions of her sister and her mother’s boyfriend. She generously shares her own experience, and also the broader context of the gendered labour in supporting someone who is experiencing addiction. Read my full review of Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls here.
In My Skin by Kate Holden
There’s a lot of cross-over in the stereotypes about women who experience addiction and women who are sex workers. Kate Holden examines them all, sifting the grains of truth from the societal myths, in In My Skin. This is her memoir about her own heroin addiction, how she turned to sex work to finance her lifestyle, and how she eventually defeated her demons. Holden draws from the rich literary tradition of confessional women writers to draw a beautiful, aching portrait about how her life ended up so very different to how she imagined. It’s a transformative read, one that will have you questioning your assumptions.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Sharp Objects follows a journalist, Camille, as she returns to her stifling hometown to investigate the abduction and murder of two young girls. That’s enough to unsettle anyone, but Camille has traumas in her past that make her ultimately susceptible to anything that might provide an escape. Her addiction manifests in multiple ways: there’s drinking, yes, but she’s also addicted to self-harm. She has carved a dictionary’s worth of words into her own skin, and wears long sleeves and pants to hide the signs of her addiction from the world. This is a twisted thriller of the kind that only Gillian Flynn could produce, and it’s also a hair-raising book about the co-morbidities and root causes of addiction. Read my full review of Sharp Objects here.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Loneliness and addiction go hand in hand – one feeds the other, in an endless loop. That’s reflected in the life of Eleanor, a lonely former foster child who’s repressing some serious family trauma, but she’s “completely fine”. Gail Honeyman was inspired to write Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine after reading about the epidemic of loneliness among young people, and the coping mechanisms they use to ameliorate it. Eleanor turns to alcohol to numb the pain of her isolation, often losing hours of her solitary life (even entire days) to drunken stupors. The story ends on a hopeful note, with Eleanor confronting the reasons she turns to alcohol and forging a path forward. Read my full review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine here.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Look, there’s an argument to be made that addiction is the least of Jude’s problems in A Little Life. Hanya Yanagihara has written one of the definitive books about misery, with his trauma seeming endless over the course of the 800-plus pages. But drug abuse and addiction is an essential symptom of what happens to Jude and his friends, a crucial crutch that the reader must understand in order to understand the characters themselves. Beware when you pick this one up, the list of trigger warnings is longer than your arm. Read my full review of A Little Life here.