grief Posts

“The Line Tender” by Kate Allen

This is an extraordinary novel. Beautifully told by debut writer Kate Allen. It is about a young girl Lucy whose mother was a marine scientist specialising in the study of the Great White Shark. They live in Cape Cod where sightings of the sharks have been spotted and Helen had anticipated their arrival in a few years time as the local seal population grew. Unfortunately Lucy’s mum, Helen, passed away unexpectedly when Lucy was a seven years old. Her father, a rescue diver for the police, brought up Lucy with the support of his kind and warmhearted neighbours. Lucy is particularly close to her neighbour Maggie’s son, Fred. The youngsters did everything together including spending every moment of their waking hour in each other’s company. They also worked on a school projects together like the field guide on sharks that involved Lucy drawing and Fred providing the scientific explanations. Sadly, tragedy strikes. It devastates Lucy for whom it is a double blow. “The Line Tender” is an extraordinary glimpse into the world of adolescents as well as how adults around them help form a community and provide support whether in times of sadness, learning or navigating their way through the beauty this world can provide. It is not an us vs them kind of yalit but calm look at how everyone is managing their griefs too and they can reach out to each other for support. It is a way of looking outwards and the manner in which it helps heal Lucy. Read it.

29 October 2019

“Where Reasons End” by Yiyun Li

No, just feeling sad, I said.

Still?

Still? I said. Sometimes I’m so sad I feel like a freak.

That sounds like self-pity unrestrained, he said.

I thought about my language. Indeed he was right. Not only was it immoderate but it was imprecise. How do you compare sadness that takes over like an erupted volcano to sadness that stays inside one, still as a still-born baby? People talk about grief coming and going like waves, but I am not a breakwater, I am not a boat, I am not a statue left on a rocky shore, tested for its endurance.

Let me revise, I said. Sometimes sadness makes me unable to write.

Why write, he said, if you can feel?

What do you mean?

I always imagine writing is for people who don’t want to feel or don’t know how to.

And reading? I asked. Nikolai was a good reader.

For those who do.

For weeks I had not read well. I picked up books and put them down after a page or two, finding little to sustain me. I was writing, though, making up stories to talk with Nikolai. (Where else can we meet but in stories now?)

See my point? he said. You cannot not write. You don’t even mind writing badly.

Because I don’t want to feel sad or I don’t know how to feel sad?

What’s the different? He said. Does a person commit suicide because he doesn’t want to live, or doesn’t know how to live?

I could say nothing.

(p.55-57)

….

Orphan, widow, widower, I thought, but what do you call a parent who’s lost a child, a sibling who’s lost a sibling, a friend who’s lost a friend?

I told you nouns are limited, Nikolai said..

Words are, I said.

(p.114)

Yiyun Li’s novel Where Reasons End is a tender-hearted, very moving, novel that delves into memories and half-finished conversations by the unnamed narrator with her dead child. It is achingly painful to read given that it seems as if the reader is eavesdropping upon very intimate moments between mother and child. Grief takes many forms. This is one. Losing a child but a teenager is terrible. Here the mother hearks back to conversations with her child. Holds on to the few memories she has. When a mother talks to her child, it is as if they cut off everything else in the world and are completely focused upon each other. It is in many ways like the oneness of being that a mother experiences with her child when it is in vitro.It may be hauntingly sad, grief-stricken book, a eulogy to one who took his life. It may mirror to some extent Yiyun Li’s life as her sixteen-year-old son committed suicide. But in an age where parenting and motherhood is spoken of ad nauseum. Motherhood narratives are rapidly becoming a critical genre of literature. Where Reasons Endbelongs very much to this literary space.

Yiyun Li is based in USA and writes in English. In a fabulous New Yorker essay published in January 2017, she explains why she chooses to write in English. Here are some extracts that shed some light on the manner in which she chose to craft her novel Where Reasons End.

Yet language is capable of sinking a mind. One’s thoughts are slavishly bound to language. I used to think that an abyss is a moment of despair becoming interminable; but any moment, even the direst, is bound to end. What’s abysmal is that one’s erratic language closes in on one like quicksand: “You are nothing. You must do anything you can to get rid of this nothingness.” We can kill time, but language kills us. … When we enter a world—a new country, a new school, a party, a family or a class reunion, an army camp, a hospital—we speak the language it requires. The wisdom to adapt is the wisdom to have two languages: the one spoken to others, and the one spoken to oneself. One learns to master the public language not much differently from the way that one acquires a second language: assess the situations, construct sentences with the right words and the correct syntax, catch a mistake if one can avoid it, or else apologize and learn the lesson after a blunder. Fluency in the public language, like fluency in a second language, can be achieved with enough practice.

Perhaps the line between the two is, and should be, fluid; it is never so for me. I often forget, when I write, that English is also used by others. English is my private language. Every word has to be pondered before it becomes a word. I have no doubt—can this be an illusion?—that the conversation I have with myself, however linguistically flawed, is the conversation that I have always wanted, in the exact way I want it to be.

In my relationship with English, in this relationship with the intrinsic distance between a nonnative speaker and an adopted language that makes people look askance, I feel invisible but not estranged. It is the position I believe I always want in life. But with every pursuit there is the danger of crossing a line, from invisibility to erasure.

When one thinks in an adopted language, one arranges and rearranges words that are neutral, indifferent even.

When one remembers in an adopted language, there is a dividing line in that remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction.

Often I think that writing is a futile effort; so is reading; so is living. Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language. That emptiness is filled with public language or romanticized connections.

Yiyun Li, “To Speak Is to Blunder: Choosing to renounce a mother tongue.” The New Yorker, January 2, 2017, issue.

4 April 2019

Ken Spillman “The Great Storyteller”

Creatures of the forest gathered to hear The Great Storyteller for the last time. 

‘My life has been full of wonder,’ he tells them. ‘The greatest gifts are stories, pictures, songs and play. Remember this! We can ALL imagine the world as wild and wonderful as this forest.’

Ken Spillman’s The Great Storyteller is a picture book about the grief at the passing of a wise and great storyteller, the elephant, which leaves his friends in the forest devastated. For a while they are incapable of doing anything except to mourn his passing by sharing memories and participating in what can be considered one long wake.

‘When we lost The Great Storyteller, we lost his stories. Every story gives us a new beginning. Each story took us on a fantastic journey. Our imagination made them real.’ 

Slowly with time they realise they can make their own stories and “imagine colourful worlds”. It works! Laughter and cheer returns to the forest.

Ken Spillman‘s The Great Storyteller is a hauntingly moving tale about stories, loss and new beginnings. Incredibly sensitively the concept of death is introduced to little children but also how crucial it is to grieve, to come to terms with the loss of a dear friend, and yet life goes on. It is not as if the memory of the beloved friend is ever forgotten. It exists. It remains in one’s heart as a circle of grief, if you like, with life’s experiences creating layers around it, encompassing it and couching it. The illustrations by Manjari Chakravarti accompanying the story are absolutely stupendous! The effect of using watercolours and pastels create a warm feeling. Beginning with the fabulously tactile book cover which has the elephant and the monkey illustration in matt finish; it is an excellent introduction to young readers to immerse themselves into this story. It is the only way to experience it. Something shifts inside for an adult reader, it can only have a more powerful effect on young impressionable minds.

Magnificent story!

Ken Spillman The Great Storyteller ( illustrations by Manjari Chakravarti) Scholastic India, Gurgaon, Delhi, 2018. Pb. Rs 250

6 May 2018 

Cathy Rentzenbrink

Reading Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir The Last Act of Love and the companion to it A Manual for Heartache is a gut wrenching experience. The Last Act of Love was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize 2016   for its an account of how Cathy Rentzenbrink’s younger brother Matt had a head injury and was for eight long years in a coma. The medical term for it is PVS or “permanent vegetative state” or as their mother says of Matt “living corpse”. Matt was a teenager in his prime when he met with an accident that left him in this horrific state. The Last Act of Love is a compassionate account of a sister trying to understand what her brother must be going through if he can feel anything. More importantly it is an account of how much of themselves caregivers have to give to ensure that a patient is cared for well.

Caregiving can be a thankless task since it is repititive with no breaks whatsoever. After a while the sympathetic circle of friends and relatives return to their lives but the immediate family of the patient is responsible for the daily courageous and relentless task of caregiving. At times it can become exceedingly lonely, stressful and mentally debilitating. For Cathy Rentzenbrick her escape mechanism was reading.

Reading was still my friend, though. I read continuously and compulsively, drowning out sounds of my own thoughts with the noise of other people’s stories. I no longer turned out the light before going to sleep — I had to read until the moment my eyes closed. There could be no gap for the demons to jump into. 

Most caregivers are caught in a cycle of maintaining systems that they forget to take care of themselves or share experiences about the roles they inhabit. These involve a bunch of questions about the quality of life the patient has to how effective are advancements in medical technology.

The Last Act of Love written  many years after her brother passed away takes its title from a phrase the author’s mother used in her sworn affidavit to the court seeking legal permission to discontinue nutrition and hydration given how poorly Matt was with a chest infection and recurring epileptic fits.

I have known for some time that there is nothing I can do for Matthew to enrich his life in any way. He needs to die. We had hoped it would happen with an infection and without the need to approach the court. But the sad irony is that his poor body, unable to do anything else, seems capable of fighting infection. So we are asking the court’s permission to cease nutrition and hydration so that Matthew can be released from his hopeless state. It is our last act of love for him. 

Writing The Last Act of Love may have been thereapeutic for Cathy Rentzenbrick but it certainly provides a much needed account of hope and a way of managing caregiving at home, many times the dilemma it presents. Sharing of stories is a relief for many in a similar situation but few have time to do so. Reading an account is possible.

Within months of the successful publishing of The Last Act of Love, Cathy Rentzenbrick wrote A Manual for Heartache which can be viewed as a sequel to her memoir but works very well as a manual for managing grief and loss. It is full of wisdom and gently with big dollops of kindness shares wisdom garnered over the years of caregiving for Matt.

 

Here are some invaluable excerpts from the book

On grief

What I now wish someone had told me is this: life will never be the same again. The old one is gone and you can’t have it back. What you might at some point be able to encourage yourself to do, and time will be an ally in this, is work out how to adjust to your new world. You can patch up your raggedy heart and start thinking and feeling your way towards how you want to live. That’s what I wish someone had told me and that’s what I want to tell you. I think I’m finally doing it.

On etiquette of bad news

It seems ridiculous that in the face of someone else’s misfortune we spend time worrying about our own behavious, but it’s only human and is particularly true when it comes to death and grief. I’m sure it was easier in Victorian times when there were prescribed rules, when society and the Church provided a framework. There was guidance on what to wear, how to communicate with people, how much time should elapse before everyone rejoined the business of life. Visible signs such as black crepe and mourning brooches made of jet acted as clues to the rest of the world. Like a version of the “Baby on Board” sign stuck in the back windscreen of a car, the blackness served as a warning that an individual needed to be treated kindly. All cultures have rituals around death and mourning but, in our increasingly secular society, it’s easy find ourselves unsure of what to do. 

….

I have come to see there is a beauty in simply being present for someone who is struggling wiht a heavy burden. The best thing you can offer is unlimited kindness. People to whom the worst has happened can be out-of-control sad and unable to obey the normal rules of life. It mught be all they can do to hold on. If they are mean or cruel or temporarily incapable of good manners, we need to suspend our expectations around them and give them space and compassion as they splinter and behave badly and say the wrong thing. If they are behaving perfectly and holding themselves together, then that’s OK, too. 

Reading both the books together is highly recommended. Share, share, share these books.

Update ( 5 Sept 2017)

The Guardian Longreads published a fascinating account of “How science found a way to help coma patients communicate“. It is worth reading!

Cathy Rentzenbrick The Last Act of Love Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2015. Pb. pp.248 Rs 450

Cathy Rentzenbrick A Manual for Heartache Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 150 Rs 499 

31 August 2017 

 

Max Porter “Grief is the thing with Feathers”

‘If your wife is a ghost, then she is not wailing in the cupboards and corners of this house, she is not mooching about bemoaning the loss of her motherhood or the bitter pain of watching you boys live without her.’

‘No?’

‘No. Trust me, I know a bit about ghosts.’

‘Go on.’

‘She’ll be way back, before you. She’ll be in the golden days of her childhood. Ghosts do not haunt, they regress. Just as when you need to go to sleep you think of trees or lawns, you are taking instant symbolic refuge in a ready-made iconography of early safety and satisfaction. That exact place is where ghosts go.’

I look at Crow. Tonight he is Polyphemus and has only one eye, a polished patent eight-ball.

‘Go on then. Tell me.’

We sit in silence and I realise I am grinning. 

I recognise some of it. I believe him. I absolutely blissfully believe him and it feels very familiar. 

‘Thank you Crow.’

  ‘All part of the service.’

  ‘Really. Thank you, Crow.’

  ‘You’re welcome. But please remember I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, plase. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker, and all that.’

  ‘He never called you a motherfucker.’

  ‘Lucky me.’

( p.68-70)

In 2015 a buzz began about a promising debut by Max Porter. He is an editor at Granta Books and was due to publish Grief is the Thing with Feathers a novel about an English widower and his two sons. It is a brilliant meditation on grief, loneliness,  death and Ted Hughes. It is a novel that is written from three perspectives — the dad, the sons and the crow. The latter is a psychic manifestation of the dad who also happens to be writing a book on the poet Ted Hughes called Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis but the symbolism of the bird works at multiple levels too. For instance the crow is associated with grief, intelligence, personal transformation, believed to be a spirit animal, a creature presumed to have mystical and magical powers, is a steady presence in folklore, mythology and to have personal insight. The Crow in Grief is the Thing with Feathers is no less. Surprisingly in this magical fable Max Porter with gentleness and supreme craftsmanship is able to weave in the mystical and modern with a personal tribute to a literary giant, Ted Hughes. It works splendidly not just in words but with a keen eye on the layout of text designed on each page seemingly in-step with the sentiment expressed. It won the International Dylan Thomas Prize 2016 where the judges commended it for its “imaginative prose”. The prize is for the best work of English-language literary fiction – poetry, drama or prose – by a writer of 39 or under, marking Thomas’s own death shortly after his 39th birthday.

According to the Bookseller, Granta where Max Porter works promoted him to editorial director of Granta and Portobello Books. Porter, who has published authors including Man Booker Prize-winning Eleanor Catton along with Han Kang, Tom Bullough, Caroline Lucas and Sarah Moss, will continue to acquire fiction and non-fiction for both lists. Sigrid Rausing, publisher of Granta, said: “I’m thrilled to announce Max Porter’s promotion. Max is a valued member of Granta’s editorial team – there is no part of publishing that he doesn’t do extremely well, and being a writer himself he understands the writing process from all angles.” Porter added: “I am delighted to be taking on this new role at Granta and Portobello. This is a remarkable team of people, dedicated to publishing outstanding books. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here.” ( 31 May 2016 http://bit.ly/1su3hdE )

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is an exquisitely complex novel that is a must have.

Max Porter Grief is the Thing with Feathers Faber & Faber , London, 2015. Hb. pp. 115 Rs 799

6 June 2016

Yann Martel, “The High Mountains of Portugal” and Kent Haruf, “Our Souls at Night”

Yann MartelLove is a house with many rooms, this room to feed the love, this one to entertain it, this one to clean it, this one to dress it, this one to allow it to rest, and each of these rooms can also just as well be the room for laughing or the room for listening or the room for telling one’s secrets or the room for sulking or the room for apologizing or the room for intimate togetherness, and, of course, there are rooms for the new members of the household. Love is a house in which plumbing brings bubbly new emotions every morning, and sewers flush out disputes, and bright windows open up to admit the fresh air of renewed goodwill. Love is a house with an unshakable foundation and an indestructible roof. ( p23-24, The High Mountains of Portugal)

Three widowers, Tomas ( 1904), Eusebio Lozora (1938) and Peter Tovy ( 1981), are the protagonists in three loosely interlinked stories — “Homeless”, “Homeward” and “Home”. These are in Yann Martel’s latest offering, The High Mountains of Portugal. There is a sense of loneliness and despair. The three long stories are the ways in which the men come to terms with losing their beloved. With Tomas it is walking backwards and then going off to the High Mountains of Portugal in search of a church relic. For Eusebio solace is to be found somewhere in the space of living and the dead, usually during the many hours he spends conducting autopsies in his office. And for Canadian Senator Peter Tovy it is buying a chimpanzee from a laboratory, Odo, and creating a life for themselves together in Portugal, Peter’s country of origin. The three stories are connected unexpectedly but these links do not strike as jarring a note as one would expect. Funnily enough these magic realist tales are incredibly soothing to read, particularly “Home”. It is inevitable comparisons will be made between  Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker-shortlisted We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as was done by Ursula Le Guin in her book review. ( The Guardian, 27 January 2016 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/27/the-high-mountains-of-portugal-yann-martel-review ) Yet the detail and incredible amounts of research it must have required to write this story are masked completely by the sensitive and movingly told relationship between Peter and Odo. But then the idea of a journey, self-growth of the narrator and with a wild animal as a companion is not a unique idea for Yann Martel.

Yann Martel was incredibly lucky when his second book, Life of Pi. It sold over 4 million units and continues to be in print. ( The success of this novel is indicated by placing it as a qualifier beneath Yann Martel’s name on the new book cover as “Author of Life of Pi“.) It is a an enviable luck. But what is even more striking is how the luxury of money allows the writer the time and artistic license to play with ways of storytelling. With a seemingly traditional and old-fashioned opening in “Homeless” Yann Martel moves on surely and steadily to tickle the imagination and challenge the reader to engage with the text such as the image of the ape, Peter and his son trying to read Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death in Portugese, together. It is an extraordinary experience and not to be easily forgotten.

Juxtapose this with the late Kent Haruf’s heartbreakingly tender tale OurKent Haruf Souls at Night. It is about two elderly people — Addie and Louis. Both single having lost their spouses a little while earlier. Both have children who have left the small town they live in for better pastures in the big cities. It is about their unique friendship. Of spending time together at night chatting quietly, lying side by side in bed, neatly sidestepping traditional roles and expectations. This  gives them much solace since they are past the age of caring what others think. Yet it sets tongues wagging amongst the locals and upsetting their children considerably too who return to check upon the parents.  Both, Addie and Louis, have reasons to grieve but have worked out that they derive immense happiness in this unexpected way of life. Even for the short duration that they are responsible for the caregiving of Addie’s six-year-old grandson they come across as a contented family unit.

Our Souls at Night The High Mountains of Portugal are stories that gently but magnificently delve into that very moment immediately after the death of a spouse — loved or not is not necessarily always the question. But the sheer loss of losing someone with whom you have co-habited and existed for decades leaves a devastating hole in one’s life that is not always easily comprehended by family. These two books that despite being heartbreakingly tender are surprisingly very comforting to read. It is worth spending time with them. I hope many copies are sold. Question begs to be asked. Do readers have the space to read mature stories especially that are at a lower pace and dwell on old age? Nowadays there is so much of the angry new novel and baring one’s heart and soul, where do these beautiful novels find their readership?

( Two other novels I would put in the same category as these novels are Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover  and Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. )

Yann Martel The High Mountains of Portugal Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 332. Rs.599

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night Picador, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 180. Rs 550

24 March 2016

‘Jane Austen has mattered more to me than Irish folktales’ : Colm Toibin ( 26 Dec 2015)

Colm Toibin

‘I like the idea of creating a fictional landscape’ PHOTO COURTESY: COLM TÓIBÍN WEBSITE

(I interviewed Colm Toibin for The Hindu. The original url is: http://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/colm-toibin-in-conversation-with-jaya-bhattacharji-rose/article8026101.ece. It was published online on 26 December 2015 and in print on 27 December 2015.)

Colm Toibin, author and playwright extraordinaire, talks about how his writing is not a conscious decision but comes from some mysterious place.

He is the author of eight novels, including Brooklyn and Nora Webster and two collections of stories, Mothers and Sons and The Empty Family. His play The Testament of Mary was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 2013. His novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times. His non-fiction includes ‘The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe’ and ‘New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers & Their Families.’ He is a Contributing Editor to the London Review of Books, and the Chair of PEN World Voices in New York, and His books have been translated into more than thirty languages. He is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of Humanities at Columbia University. Toibin will participate at The Hindu Lit for Life 2016 in Chennai. Excerpts from an interview:

 When did you start writing fiction?

I was writing poetry. Then, at 20, I stopped and for a few years wrote nothing except letters home. Then I wrote a few bad short stories. Then when I was about 26, an idea came to me for a novel. Really, from the moment that happened, I was writing fiction.

Did training as a journalist help you as a writer?

Yes, it gave me a relationship to an audience, a sense that work is written to be read, is an act of communication.

Your fiction has strong women characters who lead ordinary lives. But it is the tough choices they make that mark your fiction as remarkable. Is it a conscious decision to create stories around women?

I think it’s 50-50 men-women. Some novels like The Heather Blazing and The Master are written from the point of view of men. I think writers should be able to imagine anything. I was brought up in a house full of women. Writing never comes from a conscious decision, but always from some mysterious place.

Does writing about women with such sensitivity require much research?

I listened a lot to my mother and her sisters and to my own sisters when I was growing up.

An aspect that stands out in your fiction are the constant discussions you seem to be having with Catholicism and the Church, almost as if you are in constant dialogue with God. It comes across exquisitely in the moral dilemma your characters experience. Is this observation true?

I think that might be a bit high-flown. I work with detail and I often let the large questions look after themselves. But it is important not to be banal, so I allow in some images from religion but I try to control them.

The tiny details that enrich your fiction are very similar to oral storytelling. Has the Irish literary tradition of recording and creating a rich repository of its oral folktales in any way influenced your writing?

Not really. I am a reader, so I have a sense of the rich literary tradition that the novel comes from. When I was a teenager, I was not interested in reading any Irish fiction, so I was devouring Hemingway, Kafka, Sartre, Camus, Henry James. I think Jane Austen, with all her irony and structural control, has mattered to me more than Irish folktales. But I like Irish folktales too.

Who was the storyteller at home and from literature who influenced you the most?

All the women talked a lot, but it was not storytelling in any formal sense.

Your fiction at times feels like a meditation on grief exploring the multiple ways in which people mourn. Why?

My father died when I was 12 and I think this has a serious effect on me. I didn’t think about it for years, almost repressed it. So then it began to emerge in the fiction, almost despite me.

Your characters reappear in your stories like Nora in Brooklyn becomes Nora Webster. Is this part of your attempt at creating a literary Wexford landscape or is it at times convenient to work with characters you are already comfortable and familiar with?

I like the idea of creating a fictional landscape that is slowly growing or becoming more complete. Thus in Nora Webster, there are characters from The Heather Blazing, The Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn and some short stories, most notably The Name of the Game.

6 January 2016