Tag Archives: grief

The Bear and the Paving Stone: Toshiyuki Horie

“There is nothing more dangerous than a stupid friend. A wise enemy is far better.”

In The Bear and the Paving Stone Japanese author Toshiyuki Horie gives us three tales which explore friendship, the importance of shared memories and the elusiveness of human motivation.

The Bear and the Paving Stone

The Sandman is Coming

In the Old Castle

In The Bear and the Paving Stone, a young Japanese translator meets his friend Yann in Normandy. The two men haven’t seen each other in some time, and Yann, a “perpetual freelancer, unbound by a company schedule,” works part of the year and uses his wages to travel and take photographs. Yann has the tendency to drop out of sight, and this time the translator catches Yann, who is living in a remote cottage miles from the closest village, just before he leaves for Ireland. The two young men spend some time together reminiscing about their shared past, and discuss a range of topics including Bettelheim, Littré  and the holocaust. At one point, Yann puzzles over the question why people don’t flee when war moves close to their homes, and the narrator ponders on the subject:

In the limited reality that I knew, I’d never have to flee for my life, and it was unlikely to happen now. If I went somewhere, I always returned. I left Paris and came to this village; soon enough I would go back to Paris, then I would go back to Tokyo. But in a way I was always at home. If you were to make a contact sheet of all my journeys. and looked at them retrospectively, it would be clear that all my travels were return trips, and that I never drifted anywhere. In that sense, Yann and I were different. Even though there’s something about us that’s connected, we’re moving in different directions, and we’re never going to collide. 

The Bear and the Paving Stone is a philosophical novella which captures conversations between two men who share values. The talks not only reveal shared opinions but also reveal, possibly, the reasons behind Yann’s restlessness and his interest in war photography. In arguably the novella’s best scene, Yann offers his guest a photograph as a gift, but it’s a gift the translator doesn’t want. He would prefer “a quieter image.”

When Yann travels to Ireland, the translator spends time with Yann’s landlady,  and again a few casual conversations reveal a great deal of pain. By the conclusion of the story, the translator begins to understand why his friendship with Yann works so well.

The bear and the paving stone

In The Sandman is Coming, another very interior tale (even though it’s set on a beach), the narrator meets a woman walking on the beach with her daughter. The narrator used to be a friend of the woman’s brother, but 18 years have passed, and during that passage of time, the brother has died after a long illness. The woman, who once seemed to have the possibility of a good career, dropped out of school and married, but the marriage ended in divorce.

It’s the second anniversary of the death of the narrator’s friend, and he’s come to visit the family, and he finds himself taking a walk with his friend’s sister on the beach. There’s something melancholy about a deserted beach–especially if the day isn’t bright.

The third story: In the Old Castle, a translator takes a train to meet an old friend. The friend. “had always had trouble finding a girlfriend,” but now he supposedly has found “the one.” The new girlfriend isn’t quite what the translator expected. For one thing, she’s ten years older and rather shabbily dressed, but she’s also interesting. The friends decide to explore an old castle which is undergoing a restoration. Even though the place is overseen by a grumpy, antisocial groundskeeper and a Doberman, the narrator and his friend climb over a fence into the ruined castle, and of course, things don’t go well.

Of the three tales, The Bear and the Paving Stone was easily my favourite. It’s much deeper and stayed with me long after the conclusion. In this rich story, the author explores a range of subjects including how our choice of friends says a great deal about us, but it’s only in the best of friendships that we learn more about ourselves.

Translated by Geraint Howells

Review copy

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The Birds of the Air: Alice Thomas Ellis

“Christmas was like a storm washing people to and fro to end up unwanted in each other’s homes.”

Christmas arrives regularly whether we are ready for it or not, and in The Birds of the Air from Alice Thomas Ellis, the celebration comes at an awkward time.  The novel covers a few days in December as three generations of one family converge on the home of the maternal grandmother, Mrs Marsh, a chirpy efficient woman who believes that ‘life must go on’ regardless of family tragedy, and as a widow she’s living proof of her fussy ability to cope.

Unfortunately, Mrs Marsh’s daughter, Mary, isn’t as resilient, and after the death of Mary’s son, Robin, “when it became clear that Mary could no longer live alone,” her mother insists that Mary should move in and be taken care of. While Mary “burned, as remote as a salamander in a blazing exaltation of grief, seeming to draw energy from what had devoured her,” Mrs Marsh’s mourning for her husband is relegated to one specific time of day:

she permitted herself to weep a little each morning in the bathroom before she put on her eyeshadow, but she knew and accepted what apparently Mary did not–that life had to go on. Mary had gone far, but had been wounded and forced to return; and her mother felt the ever so slightly spiteful vindication of the keeper of the cage. The bird had come back, if only to die.

The complacent living sometimes resent prolonged mourning, and that is certainly the case in the Marsh home, and here are the Christmas holidays which are supposed to be a time for celebrating:

she couldn’t suppress a feeling of annoyance with Mary’s Robin for being dead. The event had upset her daughter out of all proportion. Of course it was a dreadful thing to lose your loved ones, but life had to go on. What would happen if everyone collapsed?

Mary, apathetic and depressed, is in a strange twilight zone. She’s still in the world of the living but she longs to join Robin in death; she eats when she’s told to, but mostly she looks out at the garden and watches the birds, alone with her thoughts.

The sky had darkened when Mrs Marsh came back with lunch. She pushed the door with her bottom, balancing a tray covered with two cloths, one under and one over the food, lest germs should leap on it in the few feet between the kitchen and her child.

‘Why don’t you turn the light on?’ she asked, though if it had been on she would have asked why Mary hadn’t called her to do it, or remarked that too much light was bad for the eyes. Life had so treated her in recent years that she couldn’t trust it to itself for a second. A solitary magpie–vain, god-cursed bird, clad in eternal half-mourning-flew forever across her mind’s eye and had to be propitiated or cunningly foiled with constant changing and rearranging. By questioning and vigilance fate might be deflected.

Mrs Marsh is an admirable woman but lacking in the compassion department, and while The Birds of the Air is concerned with mourning, this is also a novel of manners, so complications ensue when Mrs. Marsh’s younger daughter, Barbara, her insufferable professor husband, Sebastian and their two children , Sam and Kate descend on the Marsh household. Sam, an awkward teenager, has just discovered that his father is engaged in a long-standing affair with ‘the Thrush,’ the wife of another professor. Much to Sam’s shame, his father and his mistress are a common long-standing joke amongst his father’s students. Barbara, on tranquilizers, a woman hardwired to cope rather like her mother, also discovers the affair during a Christmas party she is forced to host, but like her mother, she carries on and the family travel to the matriarchal home for Christmas.

the birds of the airWith birds and survival in nature as a central motif, Alice Thomas Ellis follows a few days in the lives of her characters. In the  human world, once we are fed and housed, our greatest challenges are emotional, and here we have a family headed by a woman who’s determined to put a cheery face on things despite glaring evidence to the opposite. The author wisely creates moments of sympathy for Mrs Marsh in the way she realizes she dislikes her son-in-law and the “faint weasel gleam of his smile.”

He made her think of hard roads under a film of rain, shallow and dangerous; of slugs and Nazis and the minister she sometimes met in the terminal ward of the cancer hospital when she was arranging the flowers ….

Mrs Marsh’s seeming lack of empathy is revealed as a fear of emotion and its assault on the respectable middle class security with which she surrounds herself. The perfect family Christmas is exposed as a torturous event with insufferable child, Kate, who obviously inherits her father’s genes, determined to be the ‘good child,’ so when she’s not showing up her rebellious brother, she’s spouting poetry. Meanwhile tensions between Sebastian and Barbara erupt as Mrs Marsh tries desperately to cover up all bad behaviour in front of her neighbours.

In spite of a theme of grief, this is an amazing, beautiful novel replete with sublime observations concerning Mary who manages to somehow, in her ethereal position, remain above some of the worst behaviour of Mrs Marsh’s guests. There are some very funny moments as Mrs Marsh struggles to conceal some of the uglier aspects of life as unexpected guests arrive. This is the fourth rereading of The Birds of the Air, and that should tell you how much I love this book.

She retired to the back room and opened the window. Dry flakes of snow drifted in, as ready and accustomed as doves returning to their familiar cote. She left the window slightly ajar to feel the cold after the heat of the front room, and told herself that alive or dead she wouldn’t undergo another Christmas. The year’s accumulated ill-will seemed always to find expression at this time. Relations who throughout most of the year had the sense to stay apart confined themselves in small spaces to eat and drink too much. And not content with this they felt it necessary to invite people who were lonely because they were unpleasant or boring and no one liked them. They had to be made to participate since it was felt that no one should be alone on this of all days.

For more Alice Thomas Ellis:

The Summer House (made into a film)

The Inn at the Edge of the World

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Joyful: Robert Hillman

“You see how the powerful in purpose trample the lives around them, like titans at a picnic.”

Joyful from Australian author Robert Hillman follows the paths of two grief-stricken men, both “mortal wreckage, washed up on the same beach.” Through these two characters, who descend into madness, the book examines some fundamental questions about the nature of love and grief.

Joyful begins with the death of Leon’s wife Tess, once a beautiful woman, but now all of that beauty has been stolen by cancer. A Catholic priest hastens to her deathbed, and Tess’s husband, a seller of rare books and a man of wealth finds himself wondering if the vigorous, handsome Father Bourke was yet another one Tess’s lovers.

joyfulLeon first met Tess at his bookshop, when she was married to a Turkish man, and a friendship ensues between Leon and Tess with Tess gradually opening up and confiding about her many sexual exploits. Leon, who worships Tess as an object of beauty, and not as a potential sex partner, then invites her to his home where he has stored a remarkable collection of stunning gowns along with shoes and jewelry. Tess goes through a rapid corridor of emotions: first she thinks Leon wants an affair, then she thinks he’s a crossdresser, so she has to modify her emotions considerably when she understands that he wants to dress her up in these clothes and watch her in various poses.

She was about to speak but Leon held a finger to his lips. Tess raised one eyebrow for a second, then submitted. Leon walked around her in an arc, taking in every feature of her form. He stepped back three paces and asked Tess to walk across the room, past the Ungaro, returning to her position by the windows. He asked her to turn her back to him and gaze out the windows. He found a pale grey silk scarf in the wardrobe and suggested to Tess that she wear it across her back and loosely draped over each forearm. Then he asked her to walk across the room again, taking more care with posture.

‘In what way?’

“More erect, but not stiff. Let your shoulders hunch just a fraction. As if the weight of your breasts burdens your shoulders, but only slightly, as if you’re resisting.’

When Tess had crossed the room, he asked her to do so once more, without smiling.

‘I wasn’t!’

‘I’m afraid you were.’

Tess crossed the room again.

‘Can I ask you to try the Bill Blass?’ said Leon

Freud would have had a field day with Leon. Later on we learn that Leon’s lack of sex drive is related (unsurprising) to his first exposure to sexual desire, which in his case, morphed into a distant sexual worship. Tess is the only woman who can match up to Leon’s memories, and so they marry with Tess becoming, to Leon, a fetish object. Since Tess is a woman of strong sexual passions, she has an agreement with Leon–one surely destined to bring unhappiness. She is free to “roam,” and have “adventures,” while Leon doesn’t ask questions.

Her persistence in holding Sunday sacred to her needs was backed by potent reserves of willpower, and the knowledge that she was morally in the right. It had been agreed she would roam. Her husband had conceded the necessity.

After Tess’s death, Leon discovers letters and emails sent to a lover–no shock there, but then he learns that Tess intended to leave him and that she has deposited her Polish lover, Daniel, in Leon’s unseen country property, Joyful. Leon, overwhelmed by grief, and loathing Daniel, travels to Joyful to confront the man he sees as a rival.

The book blurb focuses on Leon as the grief-stricken, jealous husband, and that’s the trajectory of the plot for a good portion of the book, but there’s a second trajectory, also concerning grief, but in this case it’s the loss of a daughter. Iraqi Professor Emmanuel Dalli’s daughter, Sofia commits suicide, and with the earlier death of her brother that leaves the professor and Daanya, his doctor wife, now childless. While Daanya returns to religion, Emmanuel plummets, like Leon, into madness. His grief turns to anger and hatred and his behaviour becomes more and more bizarre.

There is a comic element to the behaviour of both Emmanuel and Leon, but it’s tragicomic. Leon retreats from society and attempts to purge the memories of Tess from the lives of other people while Emmanuel makes a public spectacle of himself. At one point he visits his wife’s clinic and complains loudly at the reception desk that he has a pain in his penis, but then he becomes the town nuisance obviously trying to provoke someone into violence–violence that will perhaps end his suffering or at the very least convert his tortured mental state into physical pain.

While I began the book thinking this was the story of Leon, it gradually became the story of grief–arguably the inevitable end of love. We all grieve in different ways and who is to say what is enough, appropriate or over the line, yet in Emmanuel’s case his grief verges on self-indulgence. The relatively minor character of Emily, the owner of a drab second-hand shop wistfully named Enchanted, is another character who like Leon, loves someone unsuitable for her. Through Hillman’s characters we see how some people destroy with love and how others are destroyed. Sofia is one of those destroyed by love–too frail to withstand life’s stormy waters, and according to Sofia’s mother, “love shook the sense from her.” We are told that love and hate are in natural opposition, and while that’s true, Joyful argues that those we love leave us–either by death or by design, so love and grief go hand in hand in a world in which we seek the elusiveness of perfection.

Joyful appears to have a certain lack of focus. Initially this seemed to be Leon’s story, but then it became Emmanuel’s story. Both Professor Dalli and Leon connect over the issue of Joyful, a house that, as it turns out, was a social experiment, a Utopian society established by Leon’s ancestor, his maternal-great-aunt back in 1942. The journal entries written by Leon’s ancestor great-aunt were a distraction, but by the novel’s conclusion, the plot’s seemingly split trajectory drew focus and a powerful message. I appreciated that Leon, a member of the Thomas Hardy Society, had a wife named Tess–as wild and passionate a character as one could hope to find within the pages of a Hardy novel.

Review copy.

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You Could Be Home by Now by Tracy Manaster

Point me in the direction of a novel set in a retirement or gated community, and there’s a good chance I’ll read it. Take Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows–a novel set in an affluent Argentinian community whose residents are not as immune to the imploding economy as they think. Then earlier this year I read Pascal Garnier’s fantastic Moon in a Dead Eye about a handful of French retirees who discover that a gated community is not the healthy, safe choice they imagined.  Eli Gottlieb’s novel Now You See Him  brings an Arizona retirement community into focus, and this brings me to Tracy Manaster’s novel You Could Be Home By Now set in The Commons, a luxury retirement community located outside of Tucson, Arizona.

you could be home by nowThe gently humorous You Could Be Home by Now is partly about life inside the retirement community, but the main thrust of the novel is grief–how we cope with it, how we live with it, and whether or not we move on from tragedy.  The number one rule of The Commons is that no permanent resident can be under age 55, and the novel’s central dilemma revolves on the discovery that one of the residents is now the guardian of a small child. This discovery raises a debate, subsequent moral questions, and creates opposing camps within the community, but even more than that, the discovery of the child causes simmering emotions and tensions to explode.

But let’s back up a bit. The novel begins with Seth and Alison Collier, two young, married teachers, working at the same Vermont school, who after the loss of their baby, decide they need a fresh start. They toss aside their old lives and, on a whim, relocate to Arizona when they accept jobs at The Commons–a luxury “cart accessible,” retirement community of over six thousand residences with two golf courses and “three convenient villages for all your shopping, entertainment, and social needs.” Hoagie Lobel, President and CEO of The Commons employs the Colliers–Seth to run the community newspaper and Alison to be the town historian. Of course, there’s a bit of a problem with getting history for a newly constructed town.

The houses were all flat roofs and projecting beams, sand-colored stucco, corners rounded to benign nubs. They devoured their lots and the trees were all spindly and new.

“I don’t see any For Sale signs,” Alison said. “I guess you haven’t been hard hit by this real estate mess?”

“HOA doesn’t allow them. Messes with the neighbors’ heads.” Lobel tapped his temple. “But we’re doing alright. Had to postpone work on Phase IV, but what’s already built… well, most folks bought to live here, right? And that’s why you’re here, see. We’re going to add to that whole experience.” Lobel drew out the word. “Tough times hit and people like living in a real place. Like be a part of that place. So we get our own paper. And you—” he turned to Alison. The cart drifted into the neighboring lane. “You, Miss, you’ve got to add some authenticity to our town. Some history when there’s really none.”

While Seth and Alison begin by being central characters, they’re very quickly pushed aside as we are introduced to various residents. Benjamin, for example, is a divorced retired veterinarian, whose ex-wife, Veronica aka Ronny and ex-home are still in Portland. Benjamin relocated for a fresh start.  He plans for an active retirement in the sun, far away from his old life and his old problems, and The Commons fits the bill.  It’s through Ben that we really get a sense of life in The Commons and why it’s a gold-plated living arrangement for retirees:

The layout of the cart paths made it a huge pain in the rear to shop off site, so most folks didn’t bother. Ben Thales did though. Eggs were fifty cents a dozen cheaper at the Wal-Mart across the way. Chicken breasts too, almost a dollar less a pound. And it had been a close eye on his money that got him here in the first place. Golf twice a week, tennis twice a week.

Most of the residents drive everywhere on golf carts–the place was designed that way. The residents are in the same income bracket, golf-aficionados and there are widows aplenty.

The novel’s theme: surviving grief is played out in three story strands. Benjamin and his wife, now-ex-wife, Ronny had a daughter, a junkie, who disappeared years before. Her absence helped contribute to the demise of their marriage, and even though they are divorced, they still retain a PI who rakes over the long since cold trail of the missing daughter. Another grief thread is played out through Seth and Alison. They’re attracted to The Commons because they think that a new environment will allow them to heal and forget and that in a retirement community “they could jog down the streets of a town without strollers.” Seth and Alison learn the hard way that you can’t run away from your problems.

The final story thread that ties into surviving grief concerns recent widow Sadie whose granddaughter, Lily arrives in The Commons to spend a few months with her grandmother. It’s through this relationship that author Tracy Manaster does a good job of showing that the generations need each other. Sadie and Lily discover a healthy rapport that grounds them both, and it’s through this relationship and the uproar involving a resident child that the reader begins to question the nature of ‘perfect’ retirement communities in general. While this was a pleasant read, a couple of scenes rang false; Seth and Alison’s abrupt change of career tested credulity, a couple of the meltdowns seemed unlikely, and teenage Lily was a little too sharp and wise-cracking for my tastes.

Review copy.

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Wings by Stuart Evers

Anyone who’s ever had a tattoo knows that there are many reasons behind the decision. Love or the marking of life change are just a couple of catalysts for a trip to the tattoo shop; grief and the desire to carry a permanent memorial with us are others. In Wings, a story from the new collection, Your Father Sends His Love, from British author Stuart Evers, Maria steps outside of her life and into a tattoo shop on her dead sister, Gwen’s 40th birthday. She wants a tattoo–a pair of wings as a memorial; the sisters had planned to get tattoos together when they turned forty, so in a way, Maria is keeping a promise to the dead.

‘My sister  died,’ she says as he points out a pair of wings that cover the entirety of a man’s back. ‘It’s her birthday today.’

‘A tattoo is a good way to remember someone,’ he says. ‘The earliest of all tattoos were for remembrance, you know?’

Tattoo virgins often imagine the experience as they gather up courage, and the imagined experience is ultimately different from reality:

It is nothing like she imagined. There are over sixty different pairs of wings in the portfolio and the tattooist is all-too helpful picking out a design. Many come with a little background, a summary of how long they take to ink, whether he feels it is a good design for her. It reminds her of looking at carpet swatches and kitchen counter tops, salesmen pitching the longevity, the luxury of their products. Like those men, the tattooist repeats that at the end of the day the choice is hers.

While Wings just grants us a brief glimpse into the lives of its characters, we clearly see the impact of grief on one sister whose life must go on even as the life of another has faded. The scant information that we are given allows us to fill in the blanks as we see Maria coping with grief and an emotional absence from her own life. Poignant and deeply melancholic, the story opens a window into Maria’s understandable grief, but is there something more going on here? This is a life that should be considered successful, but there’s been a detour, a freezing of time.

In the mirror, the wings look as though they have always been there. She thinks of Gwen, unillustrated, and begins what she understands is a kind of not crying, a sort of anti-crying, a physical process undertaken by those who have grieved enough and need no longer to grieve. She sits down on the edge of the bed and puts her head in her hands and imagines her sister laughing. The intensity of it spangles, makes constellations inside her limbs and torso. The wings beat and she can see her sister standing in the mirror, staring at her, eyes fixed and dilated.

I’m a believer in discovering new authors through short stories. If I like their style, their themes and their characters, then I’ll dig deeper.  I liked Wings enough to buy the author’s novel, If This is Home. I’ll be reading it soon…so watch this space….

review copy

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More Observations on Goethe’s Elective Affinities

German Literature month co-hosted by Caroline and Lizzy continues, and after getting annoyed about one part of Goethe’s Elective Affinities, here’s a post regarding a wonderful quote. This passage is spoken by Ottilie–a veritable saint of a girl. In the novel, Ottilie leaves boarding school and comes to live with her guardian, Charlotte and Charlotte’s husband, Eduard. Charlotte and Eduard are middle-aged and this is the second marriage for each of them as they were both ‘strongly encouraged’ to marry others in their youth. Eduard married a much older wealthy woman who conveniently died. Charlotte also married, and after she was left a widow, she and Eduard finally married. A dream come true? Well it didn’t last long, and after Ottilie enters the picture, Eduard falls in love with Ottilie. Not only does this shatter any notion of domestic happiness Eduard  shared with Charlotte, but the situation also creates no small amount of awkwardness.

Anyway, according to the intro, Goethe married his long-time lover Christiane Vulpius in 1806 after living together for over 18 years. Goethe was 57, Christiane was 41, and they had 5 children together. Why did Goethe marry Christiane at this point? Translator R.J. Hollingdale argues that the marriage was generated by “new affection” for Christiane. She had bravely faced off marauding French soldiers after the battle of Jena. Goethe’s house was invaded, and Goethe was “saved from a manhandling” only by the efforts of Christiane. 5 days later Goethe married her.

Is this a happy ending?

During the winter of 1807-8, Hollingdale tells us that Goethe fell in love with an eighteen-year-old girl, Minna Herzlieb. This resulted in a contest of duelling poets: Goethe vs. Zacharias Werner, another poet who also loved Minna. Elective Affinities was published in 1809, and since it features an older married man who falls head-over-heels in love with a teenager, well it’s not difficult to see auto-biographical elements in the novel. And perhaps this explains why Goethe’s characterisation of Ottilie is idealised. So idealised, in fact, that at one point she ‘stars’ as the Virgin Mary–glowing face an’ all–in a tableaux designed for entertainment.

So here’s Ottilie, offered to us as an impossibly saintly young woman, wise beyond her years, industrious, graceful, kind, sweet, and yet also still living with Eduard (well he’s packed his bags and left at this point) and Charlotte–whose marriage is now wrecked. This is one of her journal entries written partly as a result of Charlotte’s decision to ‘improve’ the churchyard and partly due to an evening spent with an architect:

There are many kinds of memorial and memento which bring us closer to those who are far away and those who have departed, but none is more meaningful than the portrait. There is something exciting about being with a much-loved portrait, even if it is not a good likeness, just as there is sometimes something exciting about arguing with a friend. You have the pleasant feeling that you are divided, and yet can never be separated.

Sometimes you are with a real person in the same way as you are with a portrait. He does not have to speak, or look at you, or concern himself with you at all: you see him and feel what he means to you, indeed he can even come to mean more to you, without his doing anything about it, without his realizing in any way that his relationship with you is merely that of a portrait.

You are never satisfied with a portrait of people you know; which is why I have always felt sorry for portrait painters. You rarely ask the impossible, but that is what you ask of them. They are supposed to incorporate into their portrait everyone’s feelings towards the subject, everyone’s likes and dislikes; they are supposed to show, not merely how they see a particular person, but how everyone would see him. I am not surprised when such artists gradually grow insensitive, indifferent and self-willed. This would itself be a matter of indifference if it did not mean one would have to go without the likenesses of so many dearly-loved people.

It is indeed true: the architect’s collection of weapons and ancient utensils, which were, together with the body, covered with great mounds of earth and rock, testifies to us how vain is man’s provision for his personality after death. And how inconsistent we are! The architect admits he has himself opened these graves of our ancestors, and yet he continues to occupy himself with monuments for our prosperity.

But why take it all so seriously?Is everything we do done for eternity? Do we not dress in the morning so as to undress again at night? Do we not travel in order to return? And why should we not wish to repose beside our own people, even if it is only for a hundred years?

When you see all the gravestones which have sunk down and been worn away by the feet of the churchgoers, and even that the churches themselves have collapsed over their own tombs, you can still think of life after death as a second life, which you enter into as a portrait or an inscription, and in which you remain longer than you do in your actual living life. But sooner or later this portrait, this second existence, is also extinguished. And over men, so over memorials time will not let itself be deprived of its rights.

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The Art of Losing by Rebecca Connell

“I believe that it’s only possible to fall in love once, don’t you? To think otherwise makes no logical sense. Why would anyone put themselves in such a position twice?”

 

The novel The Art of Losing is the tale of an affair. The title implies that there’s a sort of skill involved in ‘moving on’ –in this case, moving on involves the end of the affair and the death of a young woman. The Art of Losing explores how two people, held in a perpetual state of grief,  are unable to effectively acknowledge their loss.

The tale begins in the present with a young girl named Louise who moves to Oxford to more or less stalk Nicholas, the man she holds responsible for her mother’s death years earlier. Louise calls herself by her mother’s name, Lydia, and she manages to manipulate her way into Nicholas’s household by striking up a friendship with his son.

Books about affairs aren’t exactly rare, but it’s the structure of this novel that gives the story its searing intensity.  The Art of  Losing is an excellently-crafted novel which goes back and forth in time switching narration between Louise and Nicholas. Sections of the novel cover three distinct periods of time:

  • 2007: the present with Louise worming her way into Nicholas’s life.
  • 1983: the beginning of the affair that occurred decades earlier between Nicholas and Lydia
  •  1989: when Nicholas and Lydia meet again

I have a fascination for novels in which one of the main characters is NOT there, and I am always impressed when that dead or missing character leaves permanent traces on the lives of those left behind. Lydia is dead when the novel begins, but she’s brought to life through Nicholas’s vivid narration. Lydia doesn’t get to tell her story (or even a version of it), and that’s significant to the novel’s structure. We see her through the eyes of her lover Nicholas and much later through her daughter, Louise. Yet just what Lydia is really thinking and just what motivates her is murky. Lydia remains a cipher and perhaps that explains why two people are still obsessed with her years after her death.

Like all affairs, the affair between Nicholas and Lydia has a trajectory. The year is 1983 and at that time Nicholas is a single teacher. Through his narration, he details seeing Lydia for the first time along with his subsequent disappointment when he learns she’s married to a colleague.  He’s smitten (no other word for it), and the fact that she’s married doesn’t deter him. He rather calculating strikes up a friendship with Lydia’s much older, kind and gentle, mild-mannered husband, fellow teacher Martin Knight.

Most affairs eventually burn out or they evolve into something else, and the affair between Nicholas and Lydia is no exception. The relationship begins with several delicate manoeuvres as Nicholas and Lydia ‘test’ each other’s intentions before launching into the risks of an affair. The sections narrated by Nicholas are incredibly good. Nicholas’s voice is strong, clear and pitiless when it comes to his self-analysis. It’s as if within these pages he voices the feelings and the doubts he is unable to discuss with anyone else, and consequently Nicholas’s sections read with naked honesty and gut-wrenching immediacy. His relationship with Lydia burns with intense passion, and there’s more than an edge of obsession. At the same time, the relationship isn’t all positive. There are times when Nicholas resents Lydia, and the submerged emotions and resentments ultimately take a toll.

Years later, Nicholas now married to Naomi and a father, meets Lydia once again. Nicholas’s marriage is going through a rocky period; he is torn between his desire for Lydia and his loyalty to his wife & child. Lydia seems to be an addiction for Nicholas, and his feelings vacillate radically between the two women in his life.  This isn’t just the story of an affair; this is also the story of two marriages.

Here’s Nicholas putting more effort into his stale marriage after the birth of his son:

It took me another week or so to work out that it was what I had always thought of as empty gestures that she wanted, rather than actions. I took to buying a weekly bunch of flowers, the odd box of chocolates. I left little notes on the bathroom mirror when I left for work. I sometimes called her from the faculty telephone at lunchtimes to check how she was getting on with Adam. All this went down wonderfully. Before long the adult equivalents of Adam’s contented gurgling and shrieks of joy were coming my way more frequently than I could remember in years.

All of Nicholas’s “efforts” at his marriage, however, serve only to make Nicholas feel increasingly “detached.”  He feels “like an actor playing out the part of the perfect husband.” Nicholas’s sections serve as a road map to the finite difficulties and complications of a seemingly typical marriage, and his memories evoke the age-old questions behind infidelity: does one partner have to be ‘unhappy’ to ‘stray’ and is it possible for one person in a marriage to be happy while the other is bitterly unhappy? The marriages here are impenetrable to outsiders (even the participants don’t have the full facts or really understand the relationships), but the affair seems to be a sticky web from which neither Nicholas nor Lydia can escape:

“Well, we can stop it, if you like,” she said, so quietly that I could barely hear her. The words hung in the air between us, and for a moment I thought, yes, this thing has run its course. Leave it now, and maybe you can paper over the cracks and it’ll be as if it was never there. I knew I was fooling myself. In another moment I was at her side, putting my arms around her shaking shoulders.

The sections with Louise as an adult and now stalking Nicholas were not as strong. I found this a bit curious at first but concluded that Louise is the device through which the wonderful story comes to light. It’s through her creation (and appearance in the novel) that events in the past are brought back to the surface. On the other hand, Lydia, who’s only seen through the eyes of the people who love her, remains fascinating and mysterious, and I found myself rereading key passages trying to decipher her cryptic statements to Nicholas.

This is author Rebecca Connell’s first book. So that means there must be more to come….

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