I think we can all agree that chronically ill characters are hard to come by in fiction. Authentic chronically ill characters are even rarer – I’m sure I won’t be the only one who’s initially felt a spark of joy upon discovering a character dealing with long-term illness, only to have their toes curl just moments later with the inaccuracy, lack of nuance, or straight up ableism in how they’re portrayed. We have a heck of a long way to go in that respect, but that’s not to say there aren’t people out there who are getting it right and making the literary world more inclusive page by page. Not all heroes wear capes, right?
Below are some micro-reviews (originally for Instagram but, in typical fashion, I couldn’t condense them below the caption limit) of six of my favourite reads that contain incidental and authentic chronic illness inclusion in their characters. I’ve chosen to focus specifically on chronic and long-term illness this time, but if you’d like to see a disability edition of this list, I’d be very happy to oblige!
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Adult romance novel featuring protagonist Chloe, who has fibromyalgia, and who doesn’t shy away from talking about the challenges this brings: not only in her first experience of independent living as she moves out of her middle-class family home into her new flat, but also in her emerging relationship with male protagonist Red. The genre isn’t my usual cup of tea, but the way this one portrayed chronic illness (including both sides: the person with lived experience and the potential partner) felt like a breath of fresh air – definitely worth the read.
I’ll never forget reading this book and discovering a character with mild ME/CFS midway through – a male love interest of protagonist Lou. Tiny details are mentioned in conversation, and though these aren’t hugely relevant to the plot of the story, you can tell the author has taken the time to understand the illness and the challenges it brings and ensure she portrays it as accurately as possible in the character. We LOVE to see it.
Protagonist Sophie has lupus, which presents various obstacles within the main plot of the story in the same way that our own chronic illnesses inevitably present barriers within day-to-day life. Non does a brilliant job of expressing the frustration that can come when a fast-paced situation is inevitably slowed down by health issues, and the book also includes an absolutely brilliant note from the author, acknowledging the complexity of portraying chronic illness while knowing everybody’s lived experiences are unique.
The world of conjoined twins Tippi and Grace changes drastically when their declining health forces them to make a devastating decision that they’ve been trying to avoid. This has huge implications for their identities and how they experience the world, with the whole first-person narrative of their time before, during (and to an extent after) their hospital admission written in free verse. This is a heavy read and one of very few books that has ever made me cry, because it’s impossible not to feel Grace’s pain.
The protagonist in this adult contemporary read is approached by an ‘old friend’, with both characters deliberately unnamed by the author. The old friend is living with a terminal illness, and as the end of her life slowly draws nearer, she asks an extraordinary favour of the protagonist. This book looks at irreversibly ailing health through a lens and friendship dynamic, that of old friends turned acquaintances rather than especially close friends, that’s different to anything I’ve experienced before… and yet feels innately more authentic and believable than most narratives around declining health.
This literary novel starts from the present day of Laura’s life, travelling back through time to her birth in 1995. In doing so, it presents a unique look at character’s experience of endometriosis and how this has influenced her perception of herself and who she thinks she should be throughout the changing stages of her growth. Even as somebody without endometriosis, reading how this narrative tackled emotive issues around medical trauma, and the constant need to try and make others understand while knowing they’ll never truly be able to, genuinely felt like a weight was being lifted from my shoulders.
This isn’t every book I’ve encountered that mentions chronic illness (and doesn’t include books with disabled characters – next time!), but these are the ones I think did it best. There’s a real shortage of authentic chronically ill characters in fiction so if you have a favourite that’s not on this list, please spill – I’d love to hear all about it!
In the meantime, you might also like to have a nosey at my tips for reading with a chronic illness, browse bookish posts from me on Instagram, say hello on Goodreads, and shop my own books and eBooks!
Where To Next?
- Classics And Chronic Illness: How To Tackle Challenging Reads
- Rainbow Bookcase Tour (YouTube)
- Chronic Illness-Inspired Recent Reads
- Shop My Books And eBooks
- Introversion And Chronic Illness: Changing The Narrative