T he Grief of Others, Leah Hager Cohen’s new, deeply affecting novel, begins with a woman named Ricky Ryrie, in a maternity ward, struggling to come to grips with the death of her baby. Her son had been born anencephalic, with part of his skull missing, and he lived for a total of 52 hours. It is a wrenching scene, conveyed in a terse staccato that sets Ricky’s anguish in stark relief: “He wore, during his short life, a white cotton shirt with a single covered side snap, a white flannel receiving blanket, and a white cotton cap. … He was given two diaper changes, the second proving unnecessary.”
The next chapter picks up the story a year later, when it’s clear the Ryrie family is still reeling from the loss. Cohen moves between the perspectives of different family members to show the complex reverberations the trauma inflicts within the acoustics of the family. There is Biscuit – the name is a mangling of Elizabeth – the young daughter, who steals a library book about funereal rites and ends up in the Hudson River after a ritual aimed at setting free the spirit of her dead baby brother goes wrong. And there is Paul, Biscuit’s older brother, new to high school and as unsure about his own sexual orientation as he is about how to talk to his mother and father about their loss.
At the centre of it all is John, Ricky’s long-suffering set-designer husband, who concludes that the familial disintegration is the result of infidelity. “Ricky’s crimes were well documented,” the narrator tells us, “they numbered two: the ancient infidelity and the more recent one.” The ancient infidelity is of the traditional sort, a one-night stand Ricky has with one of her Wall Street colleagues just before her marriage. The recent infidelity involves John’s discovery that Ricky knew there would be something badly wrong with their dead infant son. Some five months earlier, following what she’d expected would be a routine ultrasound, Ricky had been informed the baby would be born anencephalic. “You could choose to terminate now,” the radiologist tells her. “Most do.”
But Ricky neither terminates the pregnancy nor tells John about the diagnosis. Instead, cribs are assembled and baby clothes procured as if everything were just fine; even Ricky, despite being a Wall Street “financial engineer” – a woman who makes a living from having a firm purchase on probable outcomes – allows herself to believe the doctors are mistaken: “She visualized his brain developing in time-lapse display, completing itself. The intricate bones of his skull meeting all around; the architecture of flesh and skin, all of it forming, all of it beautifully realized.”When John discovers this, he’s understandably shattered. What forgiveness can follow such a betrayal? How can Ricky atone for what she has done?
These questions emerge with particular force with the arrival of Jess, a much older daughter of John’s from an earlier relationship. She was born when John he was only 19, and he and the rest of the family have had only minimal and fleeting contact with the distant Jess, apart from one summer when she came on a vacation with them.
Biscuit and Paul were babies then, and John and Ricky seemed perfectly in love. Things have changed since, and Jess can see that, but no one asks her to leave. Pregnant, homeless, unemployed, Jess seems to Ricky to offer a second chance, a way to appease John for her infidelities, even a replay of her pregnancy. To Biscuit and Paul, Jess (or, perhaps, the child she is carrying) seems like that missing piece the family has always lacked.
But John is uneasy about his daughter’s appearance, and about the kind of happy ending her presence seems to provide, glossing over as it does the deep emotional scars that needn’t be attended to any longer as a result, but which continue to fester.
The Grief of Others is a complex and resonant novel, a moving exploration of the ways in which grief – perhaps especially the grief of others, which, like a distant country, is a place we know exists but can never inhabit – can twist and maim us, turning us into different, other people.
Born and raised in Toronto, Steven Hayward teaches in the English department at Colorado College. His most recent novel is Don’t Be Afraid.