Learning that a new novel is about grief, loss, memory and healing, one might have the initial reaction of consigning it to the tottering heap of similarly themed books so freighting Canadian literature. Don't make this mistake with Don't Be Afraid, the new novel from Toronto-born and -raised writer Steven Hayward (who teaches English literature at Colorado College).
Yes , Don't Be Afraid focuses on the death of 18-year-old Mike Morrison in a mysterious explosion, but rarely has loss and grieving been handled with such deft tenderness, sly humour and almost inexplicable beauty.
Jim Morrison (no, not the famous one) was born three days after the mysterious death of "the other Jim Morrison - the one everyone's heard of, the legendary lead singer of the Doors," and has spent his life in the shadow of both his famous namesake and the long line of James Fortitude Morrisons in his paternal lineage.
More crucially, though, he has spent his life in the shadow of his brother, Mike, a year older and infinitely more together. Where Jim is shy and uncertain, slightly overweight and eager to please, Mike is confident to the point of cockiness, tall and lean, the very picture of cool. His older brother is Jim's main role model, and his devotion is the very picture of younger sibling slavishness.
When Mike is killed in an explosion that destroys the town library, Jim and his family are shattered. His mother, Filomena, a former nun, swears to have seen Mike after his death, and grows desperate and possibly a danger to herself. His father, Fort, as a counterpoint, drives himself to discover what actually happened that night in the library, using his skills as a forensic investigator to try to explain Mike's death rationally. Jim's 15-year-old sister, Vivian eagerly embraces both a conflicting intimate relationship and her new-found role as family cook, while Petey, 4, immerses himself in a fascination with sea life and clings to a stuffed shark that Mike bought for him
Where Don't Be Afraid differs from the usual tragedy-lit is in how Hayward handles the familiar material. With a gentle hand, he never allows the force of the tragedy or the ensuing grief to overwhelm the characters' fundamental humanity, and he recognizes that, despite pain and loss, life and the world around us move on.
The characters, for example, are never treated as mere types. Take Filomena. For all her mania and desperation, her retreat into herself and her grappling with her faith, she remains connected to her family through most of the book, even when she seems withdrawn.
Jim himself is vividly rendered, his largely mute, repressed struggle with his brother's loss jostling with his lifelong insecurities and the normal struggles of a boy on the cusp of manhood. For instance, his burgeoning relationship with Jennifer, Mike's former girlfriend, to whom both boys were attracted when they first met her, is a beautiful mélange of sorrow, comfort, sibling rivalry and desire, all achingly real.
The book is handled with a curious lightness. Hayward never lingers over the grief under which his characters are so clearly labouring. Instead, there is a sharp focus on the surrealism of life and the heightened sense of ridiculousness that often accompanies grieving. The scenes set in the waiting area of Petey's preschool, for example, when Jim starts taking his little brother, are small wonders of wry humour, human foibles and the delicate dance between desire and aversion as Jim finds himself the only male suddenly dropped into a close-knit, stratified society of young mothers.
That balance of conflicting elements and emotions - of sorrow and joy, of grieving and humour - is breathtaking in the way it manages to capture and convey the nature not only of the novel, but of life in general. Don't Be Afraid will break your heart in both sympathy and empathic celebration. It is both an elegy and an enthusiastic affirmation, darkness and light. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll wish more books were like this.
Robert J. Wiersema is the author of Bedtime Story, and a forthcoming book about life, love and Bruce Springsteen.