Hazel McHaffie

A grief observed

My current novel, Over My Dead Body, centres around a family traumatised by the sudden death in a car crash of a young mum of only 35 and her toddler daughter, so I’ve been much preoccupied with grief this past year – or rather how to write effectively about it without sending my readers into a morbid depression. So I was in the mood for The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler.

I must confess I wasn’t much taken by Digging to America by the same author, but a friend who knows my tastes pretty well gave me The Beginner’s Goodbye to read, so I was intrigued enough to give her a second go.

It’s been described as ‘A perfectly judged and brilliantly executed novel of loss and recovery.’ And it’s a fair comment.

The hero and narrator, Aaron Woolcott, is six feet four and a rather flawed but endearingly self-mocking character. He also drags his right leg, has a folded right hand, and walks with a noticeable list. Oh, and he stutters. In his head his words flow smoothly, but in reality ‘I sounded like a breaking-up cell-phone call.’ I’m on his side immediately!

His wife, Dorothy, is eight years older, Hispanically dark, plump, dowdy, with few social graces and no domestic skills. Great stuff, a totally atypical heroine too. She’s only five feet one, so ‘when Dorothy and I hugged, all the wrong parts of us met.’ But Aaron loves her and was drawn to her precisely because she won’t fuss over him. So when an old oak tree falls on their house just when they’ve each gone away to sulk after a ‘stupid argument’ about tea and biscuits, and she dies, aged only 43, he is devastated.

‘I felt as if I’d been erased, as if I’d been ripped in two.’

Tyler’s ability to capture the effect of such a loss is brilliant. Using masterly understatement, she homes in on the little things that irritate – people over-using Aaron’s name, insisting on checking up on him, inundating him with food for which he must write thank you notes, their preoccupation with trivial things.

She doesn’t shirk the propensity to look back with regret, at all the what ifs – especially, what if Aaron had gone to find the biscuits Dorothy had wanted and sat with her in the kitchen while she ate them? That way she wouldn’t have been in the sun porch on her own when the tree came down.

Ideas as well as words seem stripped of sentiment and yet somehow in their very ordinariness they convey the pain and sadness. Listen for example to Aaron finding out his wife is dead:

The shoes arrived in front of me on a Wednesday afternoon. I knew it was Wednesday because the paper on the chair beside mine had a color photo of a disgusting seafood lasagna. (Wednesday always seems to be food day, for newspapers.) The shoes were clogs. Black leather clogs. That’s what the hospital staff tended to wear, I’d observed. Very unprofessional-looking. I raised my eyes. It was a male nurse; I knew him. Or recognised him, I mean. From other occasions. He’d been one of the kind ones. He said, “Mr. Woolcott?”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you come with me.”

I stood up and reached for my cane. I followed him through the door and into the ICU. It wasn’t time for a visit yet. I had just had my visit, not half an hour before. I felt singled out and privileged, but then also a little, I don’t know, apprehensive.

The cords and hoses had been removed and she lay uncannily still. I had thought she was still before, but I had had no idea. I had been so ignorant.’

There is now no one with whom he can share his deepest emotions.

‘That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.’

But gradually Aaron starts to pick up the threads of life again, although he feels a sort of  heartlessness about going for his annual dental check up, or buying new socks, or sitting in team meetings at work, and it doesn’t take much to plunge him back into the abyss.

‘… it’s like the grief has been covered over with some kind of blanket. It’s still there, but the sharpest edges are … muffled, sort of. Then, every now and then, I lift a corner of the blanket, just to check, and – whoa! Like a knife! I’m not sure that will ever change.’

After the initial shock has passed he starts to detect Dorothy’s presence – her warmth behind him in the checkout line, her distinctive scent of isopropyl alcohol (she’s a doctor) and Ivory soap; the sweat on her top lip, her clumsiness.

We stroll along beside them matching Aaron’s uneven gait as he sneaks glances at his untidy wife with her ubiquitous uncoordinated satchel, listens to her talking about the way she felt about him, or stands perfectly still, afraid any movement would make her disappear. Annoyed when everyone else seems to ignore her? We hover alongside him near the edges of a kind of insanity, the kind that can indeed characterise profound grief.

Initially Dorothy’s return makes his soul sing again, and he develops the knack of ‘learning to see her’, but he’s torn between the imagined and the old reality.

‘With Dorothy’s visits, though, it had been different. I had glided through my sentences effortlessly, because I had spoken just in my thoughts. And she had understood my thoughts. It had all been so easy.

Except now I wanted the jolts and jags of ordinary life. I wanted my consonants interrupting my vowels as I spoke, my feet stubbing hers as we hugged, my nose bumping hers as we kissed. I wanted realness, even if it was flawed and pockmarked.’

More than that, the author and narrator gradually allow us to glimpse the tensions and subtleties and emotions within a strangely ill-suited marriage, without the respectful gloss that conventionally follows death. Aaron is staggered to find that even now he gets mad with Dorothy. And it takes time for him to acknowledge that being married to her was difficult: they were always ‘out of sync’, and to allow himself to remember ‘that familiar, weary, helpless feeling, the feeling that we were confined in some kind of rodent cage, wrestling together doggedly, neither one of us ever winning.’

What’s the secret of Tyler’s success in this book? It’s partly her deceptive simplicity. She manages to gather together the everyday threads of human communication and emotion, and unravel what it is that makes relationships the flawed and complex things they are. Impressive skill. And could it also help that she’s experienced loss herself – she’s a widow in her 70s?

In spite of my admiration for her obvious writing talent, I do have mixed reactions to the happy ending. OK, it will cheer those who find unresolved issues troubling. And granted it does serve to convey the gradual progression of moving through grief: Aaron starts to see other people in three dimensions again and appreciate them more fully than he ever did before. So I’ll allow her that. But for me personally it’s too neat, too predictable.

 

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