Grief and Loss
Reading “Enon” got me thinking about how we often go to novels to experience what otherwise would be unimaginable. “Enon” is certainly such a book. The protagonist loses his only daughter at age 13, then he loses his wife. It’s like the plague of Job raining down on this guy. And yet….Paul Harding does a beautiful job chronicling the rage and grief of the father, so we gain an empathy for this person’s experience when before, we might have wanted to turn away.
This got me to thinking about books that deal with loss. But first, I want to mention Harding’s breakout book – “Tinkers.”
“Tinkers” was a literary sensation because of its Cinderella story in the publishing world. It’s a quiet novel – it tells the stories of George Washington Crosby, an elderly clock repairman, and of his father, Howard, in a death-bed reminiscence by George. George Washington Crosby is the grandfather of the protagonist in “Enon.”
It was published by a tiny press – Bellevue Literary Press, after Harding got a whole raft of rejection letters by bigger publishing houses. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, beating out a host of worthy books, almost all from much larger publishers. The publishing world has become increasingly consolidated, so it was heartening that a quiet novel from a small press won one of the country’s most prestigious literary awards. Of course, Harding is now published by a very big house; Random House.
Now, on to novels about loss. But the first work of fiction I am going to mention is a short story called “A Small, Good Thing” by the great short story writer Raymond Carver, collected in his 1989 book of short stories, “Cathedral.”
This gem of a short story is a story about the death of an eight-year-old boy after he is hit by a car. His parents, who experience a terrible ordeal waiting for news of their son in the hospital, had ordered a birthday cake for the boy, and the baker who has made the cake phones and phones and phones, trying to get someone to pick it up.
After their son has died the parents finally head to the bakery, very angry and distraught, and when the baker realizes what has happened, and after the wife has collapsed, the baker helps them and offers them some cinnamon rolls right out of the oven, a “small, good thing” they can share.
It’s like a communion; people facing the horror of death and grieving together, even though moments before they were completely at odds. It’s about caring and connection rising above alienation. It’s one of the most affecting stories about grief and dying I have ever read.
Another book I feel compelled to mention is “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s not so much a novel about losing a loved one as losing an entire way of life.
This is a wonderful novel, told from the point of view of an English butler, Stevens. Stevens is engaging in a reminiscence on his life and career after an American businessman buys the manor house he has been serving. The businessman recommends that Stevens attempt to recruit the former housekeeper at the estate.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Stevens is stuffy, an Anglophile, a stiff upper lip fellow if there ever was one. But as he tells his story you begin to realize that he has experienced profound loss.
The master he served so loyally in the period between the World Wars, Lord Darlington, was a German sympathizer whose reputation was ruined after he turned the German foreign minister into a frequent houseguest. (In one of the more excruciating scenes, Lord Darlington tells Stevens to fire a couple of maids because they’re Jewish.)
Stevens was basically in love with Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, who was also in love with Stevens, but he was so bound by the conventions of his role he could never bring himself to reveal his feelings.
And as the story commences you realize that Stevens’ whole way of viewing the world, his affection for the proprieties, the rules he lives by, are becoming outmoded; everything he has devoted his life to is vanishing. He has put some things off for too long:
Once, Stephens says, he assumed “one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding.” I think we’ve all had that feeling, that we would always have time to make connections and amends. The reader develops an enormous affection for Stevens, even as they realize how much his constricted view of the world has limited his life.
Finally, I would like to mention two nonfiction books that confront death as the ultimate loss.
“A Grief Observed” by the author and essayist C.S. Lewis tells the true story of his loss of his wife, the American poet Helen Joy Davidman. They married relatively late; she had two sons and her life had already been affected by cancer. She died four years later.
Lewis was a practicing Christian and at the same time, a consummate intellectual and thinker. His book is an anguished, raw look at the way even a stalwart faith can’t compensate for such a terrible loss. This is a tough book, but one reviewer said it was “as much the biography of a love as it is an exploration of grief and faith.” Iit was made into a lovely though very sad called movie “Shadowlands” starring Anthony Hopkins who, come to think of it, also played Stevens in the movie version of “Remains of the Day.”
Finally, this list would not be complete without a mention of the great writer Joan Didion’s book “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which she wrote about the year following the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. The two were an extraordinarily close couple, and Didion’s diamond-hard prose chronicles the dark passage she went through on the way to gaining some acceptance of her loss.