When Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir of mourning, A Widow’s Story, was published in 2011, six years after Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a columnist asked me somewhat grumpily if this was going to become a fad. “This” being the response of a writer to one of life’s most profound experiences, the death of a spouse. I said that, after almost a century in which mourners were expected to put on a brave face and not embarrass others with their sorrow, two memoirs of widowhood looked like a tiny but welcome return of the pendulum.
Beginning with the First World War, a variety of factors – a reaction to the excesses of Victorian mourning, the enormous losses of the war, the entrance of women into the work force – conspired to make grief socially unacceptable.
But happily, within the last decade or so, mourning has re-entered the conversation, at least partly because boomers, those masters of solipsism, are watching their parents, spouses, friends and siblings die. More seriously, after decades of suppression, mourning demands a hearing. “Give sorrow words,” Malcolm counsels in Macbeth . Otherwise, he says, an unspoken grief whispers to the over-burdened heart, “and bids it break.”
Not everyone wants to give sorrow words, of course. We mourn in our own personalities, and the taciturn will probably continue to be taciturn, while the communicative express their grief in conversation, journals and more finished writing. When her brother died, novelist Helen Humphreys lived through a year so terrible that she intended to give up writing. But that turned out to be impossible: “Writing is what I have, and it’s how I make sense of experience.”
The experience she tries to understand is harrowing. Martin Humphreys, a gifted pianist three years younger than his sister, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009. He died four months later, at 45. Every culture has a hierarchy of loss, and ours ranks the death of an adult sibling lower on the scale than that of a parent, partner or child. But the loss of someone who shared your childhood must be particularly painful, especially for siblings whose artistic vocations had been entwined since early childhood.
Considered too young to study piano at 4, Martin watched his sister struggle through two or three lessons before he went to the piano and played her piece perfectly. Helen was allowed to stop, and Martin to begin lessons. Determined to be a writer, Helen enlisted her little brother to scan their suburban street for suspicious characters she could describe in her notebook. (Pickings were slim in Scarborough, Ont., and Martin resigned out of boredom.)
Although they spent long periods living far from each other, their bond never slackened. After Martin died, he appeared to Helen in a dream. “You said that it was hard work to be dead,” she writes, “and you asked me to tell you what had happened since you died. So I write this down for you.”
The author of six spare, meticulous novels, Humphreys is an artist of distillation and the telling vignette. Her novelistic gifts serve her well in the book she addresses to her brother. How accurately she documents the random details the grief-stricken remember. The first words of the book are:
“This is what happened after you died.
“We took the plastic bag with your clothes, and the plastic bag with your pills. The bag with the pills weighed more.”
She has a keen eye for the inevitable black comedy (she accidentally locks her father in the car at the cemetery, leaving him to bang weakly on the windshield until someone hears), for the homemade rituals with which we seek consolation (she and her mother pour a beer on the grave after having supper there on Martin’s birthday; she scatters birdseed on his grave a few times, to produce some movement in a place that is too still) and above all for the raw strangeness of sorrow.
One of the things Humphreys learns about death is that you do things you thought you would never do, like reading your brother’s e-mails just to catch an echo of his voice. When her mother looks at Martin’s neat grave and says, “I just want to dig him up,” she understands perfectly.
Mourning memoirs are often an unpredictable mixture of candour and discretion, as if the recently dead deserve that some subjects be avoided or minimized. After one appearance, we hear no more of Martin’s girlfriend, nor do we know how he felt that his youthful brilliance, including a debut at London’s Royal Festival Hall when he was 20, ended in a career as a piano teacher and examiner at the Royal Conservatory of Music. We do learn that he did not read his sister’s novels, and that he often was too nervous or absorbed to listen to her.
In some ways, a book such as Nocturne is unreviewable. Can you criticize a book written in severe sorrow by saying, for example, that occasionally the fine simplicity veers into the banal? British novelist Julian Barnes agrees that mourning memoirs fall outside the usual standards of criticism, but for a different reason. Calling grief a “car crash of cliché,” he writes, “The book is repetitive? So is grief. The book is obsessive? So is grief. The book is at times incoherent? So is grief.”
There is nothing incoherent about Nocturne, and Humphreys has made peace with the circularity and compulsiveness of mourning. A poet as well as a novelist, she underlays the apparently plain surface of her book with a web of unobtrusive images, of light, of threatened or dead animals, of music.
Her most memorable images arise naturally from the first year after Martin’s death, when she hopes to create an apple orchard at her cottage. Collecting apples from extinct orchards, musing on the orchard as a conversation and a family, she pores over a 1905 encyclopedia of the fruit. Unable to write, but with the lifelong habit of writing each morning, she takes to copying important details from the encyclopedia, mixed with short descriptions of her distracted state. After a note about a winter apple from Tennessee, she writes almost apologetically, “Narrative is too fluid. Grief is all chop, all rhythm and breaks, broken. It is the lurch of the heart, not the steady beating of it.”
Grafting especially intrigues her and she writes that it “is about bringing something back, keeping something alive, moving the essence of something from one place to another, from one body to another.” Although she does not underline it, that is as good a definition of the work of mourning – in which the mourner struggles to internalize her relationship with the beloved while accepting that he no longer lives – as any.
Katherine Ashenburg is the author of The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die.