Book Review: Carry the One – Carol Anshaw

It’s 1983 in Chicago, and a pregnant Carmen is getting married to Matt. During their somewhat bohemian wedding reception, we meet Carmen’s siblings: Nick, who’s dressed in drag and is getting stoned with his girlfriend, Olivia; and Alice who goes off to have sex with the other bridesmaid, Maude, the groom’s sister. All of them are ‘in their last hours of making mistakes with small prices.’

All at various degrees of unraveling, Nick, Alice, Maud and another friend leave the party in the early hours of the morning with Olivia at the wheel. Soon after, they hit a 10-year-old girl who seems to have appeared from nowhere. The girl dies.

This one incident will forever remain a stain on the lives of those involved, showing them in their true light.

Olivia spends several years in jail, and the book charts their lives over the next 25 years; we are with them through divorce, parental bullying, familial hostility, drug addiction, eating disorders, success and failure. Yet this is not the big, redemptive story line you’d expect. No massive life lessons are learnt. Guilt is the only common denominator that permeates the entire text, simmering in the background of their lives, never letting them go.

So this book is a difficult one because none of the character’s lives are explicitly and overtly affected by this incident. And I do admire Anshaw for not making this an obvious read, however, this means that the events of this book are placed firmly in the dips and lifts of ordinary, everyday life. The chapters alternate between the three siblings at various stages of their lives and are temporally anchored by events such as 9/11. Nick pulls the family down with him through his lifelong battle with drug and alcohol addiction, Alice’s flourishing art career is tainted by her unfruitful infatuation with Maude (who doesn’t acknowledge that she’s gay), and the moral Carmen struggles with her role as both mother and wife in a rapidly changing world where people appear to have ‘lost interest in belief itself, as though belief were tennis, or French film.’

The book is a quiet one and can admittedly be quite slow in places but Anshaw writes exceptionally well. She truly delves into the minds of her characters, lifting them off the page and bringing them to life. The little girl is never there but always present, linking these people through shared experience:

There’s still this connection between me and him because we were both in the car. Like in arithmetic. Because of the accident, we’re not just separate numbers. When you add as up, you always have to carry the one.’

What we ultimately learn is that tragedy is a complex contradiction that can completely change the person you are while at the same time changing absolutely nothing. In all its mess, life goes on.

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Book Review: Alice by Judith Hermann

After reading and enjoying Other Lives But Mine a month or so ago, I thought I’d give literature in translation another go. This time I thought I’d venture to Germany and picked up a book called Alice by a widely read writer called Judith Hermann. I’d be lying if I said the breathtaking cover didn’t play a large part in my decision. I honestly cannot get over this cover, so damned beautiful!

So maybe all European writers have a particular interest in mortality, because funnily enough, this book is ALSO a contemplation on death. It tells of waiting for death to come, of when it occurs suddenly and unexpectedly, of the silence that comes from the questions left unanswered for decades when a person takes their own life, and primarily of what is left behind after death.

The novella is made up of five different interconnected narratives, five separate stories brought together by Alice, the central character whose life is punctuated with instances of death. Each section is named after the person who is either dead or dying in the story. It’s very postmodern in style, with very sparse almost bare prose, and with this direct style of writing, there is no explanation of how Alice may know the people we encounter in these stories. Some small inferences may be made, but much is left to the reader to fill in for themselves. This can be a little disorientating, which is how I feel you’re meant to feel when reading postmodern literature.

This book is about death, yet in a way it skirts around the actual occurrence itself, instead detailing the mundane, the specifics of everyday life, never attempting to describe emotion or anything much beyond facts. In its listing of banalities it somehow normalises death, makes death a part of everyday life, something that happens between swimming in a lake and buying ice cream from a petrol station (which I suppose it is).

An example of this is in the story, ‘Malte’. Alice arranges to meet up with someone from her late uncle Malte’s past; her uncle who killed himself before Alice was even born. The account of this meeting is meticulously detailed in its awkwardness, yet we learn nothing more about the reasons for her uncle’s suicide. However, there are minute snippets of information that can lead you to your own conclusions as to what may have happened all those years ago. And so this is how Judith Hermann speaks – without words.

There was a part of the final story that really did resonate with me, however. Alice is sorting through the things of someone who was central to her life when in a jacket pocket she comes across a crumpled bakery bag with a half-eaten almond horn in it. Such a small, trivial thing all of a sudden becomes significant. Little pockets of someone’s life left behind in their literal pockets, evidence that this person was once a living breathing human being. They once went to bakeries and ate almond horns. They are now reduced to things and memories and anecdotes. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, this will make a lot of sense.

After reading the book, despite the entire thing being from her point of view, you don’t feel like you know Alice at all. You only have a vague outline of the person she may be, but even that is a stretch. I appreciate that this is indeed intentional and the point of the whole postmodern thing, but I found it be unsettling. It was perhaps a little too reserved and devoid of feeling for me, though I appreciate that this is in fact what many will love about it.

I’m sure many critics would say that her complete detachment and almost matter of fact way of describing events is what makes this novel such a great accomplishment, for the power of the narrative lies in what is left unsaid. An essay I could have written for a class in university would have probably said something along those lines too, but now, reading without a motive makes me question whether we can rate a writer for what they do not write, for the gaps they leave in their narrative for their readers to fill in? Can we?

Other Lives But Mine by Emmanuel Carrère; A Book Review

This book can only be described as beautiful. The words heart-breaking, the sentences haunting, the image built washed in sadness, but also with a precise understanding of human emotion. If there’s any book that forces you to think about your place in this world in relation to others, to think of life and death, of grief and loss, of happiness and contentment; it is this one written by Emmanuel Carrère (and translated by Linda Coverdale).

Reading Other Lives But Mine

Other Lives But Mine is a creative non-fiction novel, and I’ll let Carrère tell you in his own words what it’s about:

Every day for six months I deliberately spent several hours at the computer writing about what frightens me the most on this earth: the death of a child for her parents and the death of a young woman for her husband and children. Life made me a witness to those two misfortunes, one right after the other, and assigned me – at least that’s how I understood it – to tell that story.

I was instantly drawn in by the first part of the book which takes place in December 2004. Carrère and his girlfriend Hélène are on holiday in Sri Lanka with their respective sons. By sheer chance, on the catastrophic morning of the now infamous tsunami, they decide to remain at their cliff-top hotel instead of going down to the beach. A halfhearted decision that saves their lives. Juliette, the four year old daughter of a young couple they had recently befriended, was playing at the water’s edge when the wave hit.

Only yesterday evening they were like us and we like them, but something happened to them and not us, so now we belong to two separate branches of humanity.

Her death and those of thousands around them is a highly sobering event, causing Carrère to reflect on his own life (the night before the wave, he and Hélène had talked about separating). The cold stare of death and the courage of others through adversity allows them to find a new, deeper appreciation for one another. His description of the chaos that ensued and of the conflicting yet honest human emotions experienced post-disaster is truly mesmerising:

Shortly after their return from Sri Lanka, Carrère is once again witness to death; this time, of his girlfriend’s sister (also Juliette) to cancer. At just 32, she left behind a husband and three small children. Juliette had already suffered from cancer as a teenager, the treatment leaving her with one paralysed leg and the other partially so. Despite this setback she went on to succeed, graduating from law school to become a ‘good’ judge on a defiant pursuit of justice.

Juliette and her family live in a small French town called Rosier, living a life that is stripped back to basics. A life in Rosier was ‘life as it appeared in TV ads, average in all things, devoid not only of style but also of the sense that style might be something to strive for.’ It is a life that Carrère readily admits he does not want but recognises that choosing to live there is to choose love.

It is after her death that Carrère decides to start writing this book, first interviewing her close friend and fellow judge, Étienne (who has also lost a leg to cancer), and then her husband, Patrice. This is the part where I felt the book faltered. We spend a lot of time focusing on Étienne’s life and work and in trying to explain how together they were greats judges, I felt Carrère focused too much on the legal details and duly got bored. That’s the only time that I put the book down.

It’s probably worth mentioning that this book can be classed as metafiction because quite a bit of space is spent discussing the writing process and the actual text itself, almost as if to justify its authenticity or indeed Carrère’s credibility as a narrator. He is incredibly open about bits of the book that he considered leaving out or sought approval from his subjects before publishing. This whole project appears to be almost cathartic.

Juliette’s courage in the face of death and the courage of little Juliette’s parents to go on after the tsunami gives a real insight into human resilience and into the nature of love and acceptance. Carrère always found himself lacking and I suppose what he is ultimately trying to explain to us is that these two deaths have taught him how to love and be loved in return. Seeing Juliette on her death bed in Patrice’s arms is enough for him to know that her life has been a success.

This book is a contemplation on mortality and by extension, the strength of the connections we make with other humans while we are alive. There’s a line that Carrère reads from his hotel magazine in the aftermath of the tsunami that stuck with me: “If we knew how vulnerable it makes us, we’d never dare to be happy”, a sentiment he says does not concern him as he has never dared to be happy. Makes you think…

Although distracting in sections there are parts of this book that are, to quote a reviewer, ‘sheer brilliance’. The writing is unadorned, simple; yet it is searing. Carrère is certainly one to look out for. Will definitely look to reading some of his other titles.

Book Review: The Grief of Others – Leah Hager Cohen

I first started reading this whilst lying on South Beach in Miami. Strange, I know. A book titled The Grief of Others isn’t the most holiday-friendly book, and reading it in my light-hearted surroundings did feel a little wrong, so I stopped. And then I lost my David Sedaris book (still mad about that), so was stuck with the crap that I seem to have accumulated on my kindle.

The Grief of Others – a beach read??

Once I was back in London, it took me a while to pick it up again, and there’s something about coming back to a book after you’ve abandoned it for a while that makes it even harder to start reading the second time, but I soon got into it.

I have to admit that it’s the cover of this book that drew me in: a little house with lit windows placed inside a glass jar. Very striking, absolutely love it.

This book charts the life of a family, one year after the sad death of their baby who died only 57 hours after he was born. The Ryries appear to be falling apart at the seams, each member of the family trapped inside the glass jar of their own sadness, unable to share their loss with one another. They never mention the child’s name or even acknowledge that they need to mourn him.

Parents John and Ricky struggle to keep things going, and though the routine of everyday life brings a certain normalcy to their lives, (‘Daily business, if not a balm, was at least a broth in which they’d been swept up and eddied along’), ‘their marriage was a broken body laid out on the bed between them’. Their struggle centres on a secret that Ricky has been harbouring, and once revealed, their entire relationship is brought into question. In this mess are their two older children, Paul and Elizabeth (nicknamed Biscuit), each neglected and acting out in their own way.

The unexpected arrival of John’s older daughter Jess reminds the family of a summer camping holiday they took eight years ago when they had first met her. Having not seen her since, Jess serves as a reminder of happier times and of what they once were.

The Grief of Others – Leah Hager Cohen

The book is certainly slow in places, and at about three quarters of the way through, I did get a little bit bored. We spend so much time in the heads of these characters, understanding how they feel, and as a result the narrative pace suffers because there is too much thought and not enough action. Having said this, Cohen really gets into the minds of these characters and she does build a truly realistic psychological portrait of a grieving family, and allows us to understand how our own personal tragedies can help us to fully comprehend the loss and heartbreak of others: ‘as if by possessing a fuller understanding of the complexities of loss, she could not help experiencing more particularly the losses of others.’

Despite its flaws I would still recommend this book, because at its best it’s really fragile and beautiful. And if you’re not convinced, I would suggest reading just the three and a half pages of the prologue because that is an example of truly exceptional writing.