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.
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 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.