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.
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?”
“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.
Last week I was talking about over-use of my hands during interviews. This week those same hands have been in overdrive in a different kind of way: taking photos, packing picnics …pointing out landmarks, exploring history …playing games, doing girly things … … all the fun that lies behind having grandchildren for a holiday. Then to cap it all, my trusty Kenwood Chef went up in smoke (literally!) after thirty plus years of valiant service, so I was back to pounding bread dough manually again. The notion of an extra pair of hands seems more than usually appealing.
Which brings me nicely to the book The Fourth Hand which I read a few weeks ago and haven’t yet told you about.
John Irving has won prizes. Big prizes. Even an Oscar. I’ve read his A Widow for One Year, and seen The Cider House Rules, so I was looking forward to The Fourth Hand. As you know, I’ve been ploughing through a minor mountain of novels about organ transplantation, and such was my confidence in Irving’s literary skill, that I reserved this one till last to savour the flow and style of a master.
But oh dear, what a disappointment, what an anti-climax. I really couldn’t find anything much I liked in Irving’s tale of a hand transplant. Briefly it tells the story of a well known journalist and TV anchorman, Patrick Wallingford, who gets his hand bitten off by a lion in full view of the world watching his news report. Far away in Wisconsin a married woman, Doris Clausen, obsesses about giving her husband’s left hand to ‘the lion man’, whilst in Boston a renowned hand surgeon, Dr Zajac, awaits the opportunity to perform the nation’s first hand transplant.
The blurb says the book ‘seems, at first, to be a comedy, perhaps a satire, almost certainly a sexual farce’ but it is ‘in the end … characteristic of John Irving’s seamless storytelling and further explores some of the author’s recurring themes – loss, grief, love as redemption. But this novel breaks new ground; it offers a penetrating look at the power of second chances and the will to change.’
Hmm, well, that wouldn’t be my summary, I’m afraid. To me the plot is flimsy and unbelievable, the characters are implausible, and to be blunt, I really didn’t care what happened to any of them. Is it likely that every woman he meets wants to fall into bed with this one-handed, immature newsreader? Would any sane woman behave as Doris did for the sake of a complete stranger and an unfulfilled wish for motherhood? Would any surgeon be as indiscriminate and absurd as Dr Zajak? I don’t think so. Of course, you would be perfectly justified in asking, who am I to dare to criticise the work of a literary giant like Irving? But regardless of my credentials, the fact remains that this novel left me cold. It took all my stubborn obsession about finishing what I start to keep me turning the pages.
But then, towards the end of the story, I found a tiny redeeming feature, a little nugget of truth that gave me pause for reflection. Doris loves The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Patrick has seen the movie but recognises that seeing and reading aren’t the same, so he sets about tackling the book to try to discover what it is that charms Doris. He slowly comes to a humbling conclusion, and he feels ‘like a fool’.
‘He’d tried to invade a book Doris Clausen had loved, and a movie that had (at least for her) some painful memories attached to it. But books, and sometimes movies, are more personal than that; they can be mutually appreciated, but the specific reasons for loving them cannot satisfactorily be shared.
Good novels and films are not like the news, or what passes for the news – they are more than items.They are comprised of the whole range of moods you are in when you read them or see them. You can never exactly imitate someone else’s love of a movie or a book …’
I don’t believe I was in any particular kind of mood when I read The Fourth Hand. And I’m pretty confident it was nothing to do with transplant-book overload since this is quite unlike the rest of the books on the topic I’ve read. I simply didn’t like it. It was indeed ‘personal’. No matter how many people laud this work, I cannot ‘imitate’ their emotions. Period.
After writing these comments something still niggled though, so I sneaked across to Amazon to check the reviews from other readers, and there I found a surprising number shared my reservations. Instantly I felt a kind of reassurance, which is paradoxical given what I’ve just said about reading as a subjective experience dependent on many personal factors. Hmmm, again. Am I really as confident in my opinions as I think I am?
In any event, I could still use an extra pair of hands! Oh, and I now have to read The English Patient because I’ve only seen the film.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Blessings of the season to you all, whatever your beliefs, creeds or circumstances.
To those whose hearts ache today, I pray you will in time find a measure of peace.
For those who are lonely and troubled, in conflict or terror, may 2012 bring unexpected solace and hope.
To those whose lives are full and exciting, I wish you continuing happiness. May your dreams be realised.
God bless you all.
In my former life as a researcher at Edinburgh University, before I became a novelist, I spent a number of years with bereaved parents. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of anything much more harrowing than watching your child die.
And yet I heard first hand from these grieving men and women that a large number of their relatives, friends and acquaintances churned out platitudes like: ‘He was only a baby, you didn’t really know him’, ‘At least you can have another one’, ‘You’ve still got John and Polly.’ In effect saying: You have no right to grieve. It’s no big deal.
Those parents changed me forever. I’ve never quite regained my tolerance for those who make heavy weather of trivial burdens and moan about their lot.
A similar (though far less damaging) experience is coming my way at the moment. I’m being told to count my blessings in one form or another, or I’m being told what I must be feeling. I have visions of carrying a placard:
I KNOW she’s at peace; I KNOW she lived a full life; but SHE WAS MY MUM. I really, really, really don’t need you to diminish my loss.
I felt the iniquity of these kind of platitudes acutely some years ago when I was inside the skin of one of my characters, Adam O’Neill. He’s a young journalist, at the peak of his potential when he develops Motor Neurone Disease in Right to Die. He’s facing an early death. He’s fully aware that though his body will disintegrate inexorably, his mind will still be functioning normally, totally conscious of the gathering horror. Imagine that kind of living death … if you dare.
I’m going to reproduce his reflections on how people reacted to him in full, because he sums up the iniquity of denying someone else in dire trouble the right to feel lousy and sad and angry.
While other people are writing Christmas lists, I’ve started to compile a glossary of things people say alongside my private responses. Outwardly, I’m afraid, I’m still locked into the hypocrisy of polite social exchanges.
‘You can still lead a full life.’
Being in a wheelchair, struggling for breath, may seem full to you, pal, but I’ve known better and by my yardstick it stinks.
‘Your attitude will make all the difference.’
Why do people put the onus on me? If I deteriorate quickly, will that be a comment on my approach to life? If it’s legitimate for you to be fed up with trivia, why can’t I be frustrated by this major disaster?
‘Try not to worry about the future, we none of us know what it holds anyway.’
Maybe, but I know pretty much what mine looks like; you can still believe that on the law of averages you’ll have a reasonable lifespan and kids and a career and a pension.
‘Enjoy today. Think positively about what you can do, not what you can’t do.’
I’d like the feel of that if I said it myself; I hate it when other people in perfect health slug it to me.
‘Channel your energy into creating the best quality of life you can.’
‘It’s a good thing you don’t have kids.’
Now that is below the belt. I’d give a king’s ransom to have the assurance that something of me lived on after my death.
‘At least Naomi’s still young enough to start again.’
Start what? D’you think I haven’t recognised the fact that she’s young and attractive and desirable and ready for the next stage in her hormonal life? Do you have to tell me she’ll probably have kids with some other bloke? Do you?! Damn it, I want her to be happy with me! Have kids with me!
‘Live positively with MND.’
That’s one of the most patronising comments to date. It conjures up those Pollyannas who are paralysed from the neck down, or whose families are wiped out by a senseless act of terrorism, who go on record as saying they’re a better person for having tribulations in their lives. Ergo, they’re glad they’ve had these things happen to them. Give me a break! Goodness thrust upon you can’t be the same value as goodness you chose to cultivate, can it?
‘I see you’ve kept your sense of humour – that makes all the difference.’
I’m sure it helps you, but remember it costs me. Just because I’m poking fun at my own inebriated gait or my drunken slurring doesn’t mean I’m laughing on the inside. Sometimes it’s just a cover to defend myself from pity, or ridicule, or too much sympathy. Or it’s because if I don’t laugh I’ll slip below the surface and in all likelihood never come up for air again.
On a good day I can tell myself most of these things but if there’s one piece of advice I’d give to everybody about dealing with folk in trouble, it’s this: Never ever count their blessings for them, or exhort them to count them themselves. Contrarily I know if someone else commiserates with my plight, my instinctive response is along the lines of: Things could be a lot worse; and to focus on what I can do. But that’s my prerogative, no one else’s.
I leave the last word on the subject with him.