How do you write about the worst things? Not, maybe the acute disasters, which are all fire and brimstone and crisis talks, but chronic sadness, the infinite pain of not knowing, the intolerable burden of loss? It’s been missing children week here, and I’ve read Carol Shields’ novel Unless, and Amanda Eyre Ward’s How To Be Lost, very different but fine, intelligent works both of them, and surprisingly undepressing which proves we are in the land of fiction here. I suspect that to write the truth about losing a child would not be to produce a readable book.
Shield’s novel tells the story of Reta Winters, a happy housewife with a gently flourishing literary career. This delightfully secure life is turned upside down when her 19-year-old daughter, Norah, suddenly drops out of college, enters a hostel for the homeless and spends her days begging on the streets of Toronto, a cardboard sign with the word ‘goodness’ hanging around her neck. After trying once to talk to her mother, one of the more painful scenes in the book in which Reta overreacts and becomes all transmit, no receive, in her desperate haste to do something about the situation, Norah cuts off all communication with her family and friends, and although they know where she is and visit her regularly, she is to all intents and purposes lost to the family unit. ‘Lost,’ Reta writes numbly. ‘A part of my consciousness opened like the separation of a cloud onto scenes of abrupt absence. Sunlight fell with a thud on streets that Norah would never walk down, the stupid, dumb, dead sun. Her birthdays would go on without her, the first of May, ten years from now, or twenty. Somehow she had encountered a surfeit of what the world offered, and had taken an overdose she is not going to be able to survive.’
Reta has a fundamental problem with all of this because she is a woman who has dedicated her life to happiness, to the cosily spun warp and weft of family life, to charm and quiet content. She doesn’t have a way to express violent distress, and so the tenor of the narrative maintains just this deadened quality of muffled outrage, a quality that sparks now and then into satire, disbelief, a little local rage. How can the world possibly continue whilst Norah is not part of them? How can they all manage to keep on doing the same old things (and they do) while she is suffering silently elsewhere? What this book brought to my mind was the old Greek story of Persephone and Demeter. When Hades steals Persephone away to the underworld to be his wife, her mother, Demeter, goddess of fertility, plunges the earth into chilly darkness. This, for me, was Shield’s way of representing the heartrending predicament of Reta – she was in the nuclear winter of motherhood, a world that might seem to keep turning, but without light or warmth or beauty in it.
Explanations abound for Norah’s behaviour – a phase, a breakdown, a rebellion, but none satisfies Reta. Her theory, influenced by the grande dame of French letters, Danielle Westerman, whose work Reta has translated, is that Norah has realized her position as a second class citizen of the world. Women still get dismissed, undervalued, patronized, Reta believes, and the second half of the novel finds her writing a series of softly rageful letters to men whose writing and reading completely blindsides women. Norah’s eccentric position, begging, homeless and yet displaying goodness seems symbolic of a certain truth of the female condition. There’s a happy ending to this story, and the event that lies at the heart of Norah’s profound alteration is arguably marked by this gender inequality but not dominated by it. And so we have to read this (and in fact even before the denouement it seems obvious) as Reta’s preoccupation, her own cross to bear. She is in fact writing a novel, a light fluffy piece of romantic fiction that becomes her salvation, her main distraction from the business of missing Norah. For all the centredness we see in Reta, dispensing to her family needs, there must be running deep a wretched resentment of her small scale happiness, of her own lightweight, ephemeral value. Or maybe it’s the loss of Norah that shows her how transient the hefty bonds of motherhood actually are, and that without them, little of worth or lasting value remains.
Well, maybe. I will admit that I had a problem believing this book to be really about mothers and missing daughters. I wondered why it was that I didn’t feel sympathy for Reta, why in fact I often felt bewilderment at her behaviour as a mother, and then I realized it was because she didn’t express guilt. I started looking for it, and once, just once, she says she doesn’t fear guilt because she knows she is guilty, but that was all. Perhaps it’s just me but I would have thought that if there’s one emotion that predominates when a child goes missing, it’s crushing, back-breaking, self-flagellating guilt. Without it, Reta’s wintry narrative felt truly empty to me. I’m probably wrong, and I wish I wasn’t aware of it, but I knew as I was reading that Shields was fighting the cancer that killed her as she wrote this novel. As a book in which Shields reckoned with the career-long dismissal of her work as domestic miniaturism, well-done women’s writing, I could understand it. And as a transposition of the intolerable pain of facing a fatal illness, I could see that writing about a mother losing a daughter might be the only plausible analogy, the only sufficiently terrible fate. But tell me I’m wrong; I’d be glad to see it through a different glass darkly. In any case this is still a remarkable novel, exquisitely written.
The other novel, Amanda Eyre Ward’s How To Be Lost was a very different creature. Bizarrely, the family in this was also called Winters, which perhaps means that Demeter spreads her frosty fingers over the imagination of any writer sitting down to address the issue of lost daughters. But here the story is told from the perspective of the eldest daughter, Caroline. Fifteen years ago, her five-year-old sister, Ellie, disappeared, but the event is rendered even more problematic for her sisters with whom she was in any case planning to run away. Although a well-off family, the Winters were a dysfunctional one, pushed all out of shape by the tyranny of an alcoholic, aggressive father. Once Ellie has gone, the usual disintegration occurs; Caroline falls into sex and drugs and rock n’ roll and gets sent away to boarding school, Madeleine, her sister, continues a docile half life, their mother tries desperately to keep things going in a way that no one appreciates. When the story opens they are all frozen into grieving immobility, Caroline notably wasting her talents as a cocktail waitress. But Madeleine is pregnant and seeking closure; she wants Ellie declared dead. At the same time, their mother has found a picture in People magazine showing a girl who looks uncannily like Ellie and she draws Caroline into heading out on her trail. This novel reminded me that Sleeping Beauty is also a story about lost children. Rather than accept the death of their beloved daughter, the King and Queen agree to endless coma, not just for Beauty, but for the entire household. How To Be Lost seemed to offer a comparable situation. Families that lose a vital member often fall asleep as a way to carry the burden of intolerable grief, remaining stuck in time at the point when the child is lost and finding themselves incapable of moving forward. In this novel, Caroline takes on the role of the Prince who dares to brave the journey that would be an expression of true love. This book suffered a little from coming hot on the heels of Carol Shields’ elegant and clever prose. It is by no means as well written as Shields’ but it has one of the most ingenious plots I’ve come across in a while. The ending is surprisingly satisfying and it is a pleasurable, swift read.
I began writing this post yesterday and since then I’ve read another novel, Margaret Forster’s Over. Can you bear another review of a lost child novel? In this one, Louise Roscoe has lost her daughter, Miranda, in a tragic sailing accident and when the novel opens, two years later, she has lost her marriage over it as well. Forster describes the not uncommon situation in which the husband and wife grieve in incompatible ways. Don cannot accept that his beautiful daughter can have made a simple error of judgement in taking out a boat she could barely handle in weather that suddenly turned stormy. He is convinced that someone, somewhere is to blame and has thrown his whole being into the search for the guilty person. In doing so he has shut down all empathy to the rest of his family, demanding that they commit to the quest alongside him; irascible, bitter, half-crazed he has alienated them all. Louise has left him and urged her other daughter, Molly to carry on with her plans for a gap year in Africa, and her son, Finn, to move into the calmer atmosphere of his aunt’s house. Louise’s solution to the unsolvable is to just keep going, to try to move forward and to support her children. The narrative voice has the same frozen quality to it that I found in the Shields and intriguingly, Unless is actually discussed in the narrative as a book that has been chosen by Louise’s book club and which Lou finds wholly realistic. Forster’s prose is much sparer than Shields’, and her immediate concerns are even more low key, but this is a remarkably unself-pitying voice, one that is in no way painful to read although I never doubted its realism.
What I found most curious were the reviews of this novel that I found online from the newspapers. Reactions were very mixed, with several writers complaining that Louise was too dull to interest the readers, that there was not enough plot to maintain dramatic tension, and one review in the Guardian astonished me by its repellent sarcasm. There were also good reviews, and I certainly found it a compelling story and one I would have given up on had it been recounted in a histrionic voice, or contained all kinds of improbable plot twists. It’s a story about the difficulty of ever coming to terms with such a terrible event, about the way that grief is personal, which is to say an expression of one’s individual character. It’s a story that doesn’t need dressing up, that shouldn’t have to tap dance for our attention. But I wonder whether it is precisely because it deals with such a personal topic that Forster’s novel sparked such disparate comments. I think that grief is a profound emotion, one that comes from the same dark depths of the soul as the erotic, but no one expects to have to account for the latter in public. By contrast, grief is inevitably a public thing, something that has to be negotiated in front of family and friends and it can be hard to watch, hard to experience, hard, sometimes, to understand. A friend of mine lost someone very close and I was startled in the months that followed by how furious she was if someone offered words of sympathy and condolence that did not express exactly what she was capable of hearing. People who were only trying to be kind would be subject to the sharpest side of her tongue and, indeed, ostracism if they did not say the right thing (and it was very hard to know what was right). Forster’s novel asks a very pertinent and difficult question: should grief be so selfish – and can it ever be anything else? Don shuts everyone out with his grieving, treats them all badly, in some ways, particularly when Lou is trying to hold everything together, despite how she feels. Which leads to the realization further on in the novel, that she has not in fact moved on as she hoped she might, that what she has experienced as an act of selflessness has in fact taken her down a personal cul-de-sac as well. I thought the way Forster gradually undermines her central character and allows the reader to see how she, too, has shut down, how her lucid account may itself be unreliable, was beautifully done.
In Carol Shields’ novel, the husband and wife have remained loving and supportive of one another, and this makes it a much easier read, a much more attractive read. I have often found that some of the most negative responses to novels come when they depict the commonplace ugliness of humanity, the emotional realities that it is unpleasant to face because they are all too recognizable. I wonder to what extent we all have an image of how grief should be, how we want it treated in fictional form, what we are prepared to accept as plausible? Which takes me back to the question I began with – how are we to talk about the worst things? Because we can’t just refuse to talk about them; even if we get it wrong for some people, even if it may not be possible to describe the truth of grief and loss, their very difficulty makes them topics we must have the courage to return to.