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.


20 thoughts on “Lost

  1. Having had a brief trip around the blogosphere I realise that this is not a very appropriate post for Mother’s Day – sorry America! Mother’s Day in the UK happens in March and so I tend to forget…. Read it another day.

  2. Oh, I don’t know about that! The question you ask is so worth asking, and so worth thinking about that it is a gift indeed.

    How do we talk about difficult things? When I write about difficult things, I find it easiest to be indirect, to bury loss and pain inside a story, deep inside, thinking it’s enough to see its shadows. Or, another way, more Faulknerian maybe, is to tell the story from many perspectives. In my work as a lawyer, where sometimes I have to tell horrible stories, I do it in the briefest, most factual way, thinking that anything else diminishes the story and the people involved.

    As it happens, I’m writing a short story about a murder, and I’m doing it by telling many stories about it, rather than just the obvious one.

  3. PS, litlove, I just realized that wasn’t very clear. The “stories” I relate as a lawyer aren’t made up things, they’re descriptions of actual events. There’s a form for how you do that, the order you do it in, and how much you say, that keeps at bay the difficulty at the center of an actual horrible event.

  4. Hi Litlove, I think it’s a very good question. I’ll have to come back to it though – also Mother’s Day here and it’s a lazy, rainy Sunday where the most challenging thing I’m doing is reading a detective novel (an Inspector Banks by Peter Robinson). But I think the answer would be to write it simply, or any way you can, or maybe in a number of different ways as Bloglily suggests. I think pain, and the defences we use to protect ourselves from it, are so intertwined that to just focus on the pain would be too traumatic. On a slightly different tack, is it just a coincidence that you are writing about lost children when your son is going off to Spain on a school trip? Sorry can’t resist a little analysing 😉

  5. We can’t refuse to talk about the worst things, but we can refuse to read them. A friend of mine whose four-month-old baby died of a heart condition can only read the lightest of fiction, thrillers or historical romances. I can understand that her grief is still too close to the surface to be able to handle exquisite literary portrayals of grief. I have read and admired Unless, but as I read this post, I kept thinking of What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, which I’m sure you’ve reviewed before. To me, that was the most heart-rending, spot-on, honest, painful rendition of grief I’ve ever read.

  6. Bloglily – I think indirect telling can be very powerful, and I also love the idea of multiple perspectives in the story you are writing. I also think that academia and law are similar in the way they keep things very cool, very distanced, very analysed, because that holds overpowering emotions at bay. Thank you, my friend, for giving me so many valuable and helpful options to think about. Bluepete – I have to talk about the end of that comment first! It’s terrible timing, really, to be thinking about missing children with my son about to head abroad without me. Having read your post, I can say that this is not helping my anxiety levels 😉 On other matters, yes, simple is good, I think, one surely can’t go wrong that way. And I hope the book is enjoyable – I’ve long meant to try Peter Robinson and never have. Charlotte – I did admire Unless very much and I feel I didn’t say enough about how well written it was. But yes, the Hustvedt is a brilliant depiction of grief and was almost too much for me to read. I did better with these novels precisely because they were not so raw, not so violent. Frozen grief is easier to read about than the fresh kind. Oh and Charlotte, I am so, so sorry to hear about your friend. What she must be going through is unthinkable.

  7. Have only read Unless of these, which I thought was excellent but have forgotten most of as it was a while ago. As to how to write about grief there is surely no one way or type of way. The world and historic, sociological, psychological forces will determine the way a writer takes on the subject, along with personal experience, and the reader will understand within the same (but personally different) set of forces. Plus a myriad of others of course. I’m sure your incisive mind will find many ways of pinning things down, but I suspect it’s the nearest one might come to translating the rawness of intense emotion into narrative. Hope your son has a great time and no worries (which you’re bound to have) prove even slightly accurate. Sorry not to have been around, but I have been reading along and this is a brief excursion from the garden as we’ve had a thunder storm.

  8. You always ask the most interesting questions! How do we talk about the worst things? I’m a fan of just spitting it out and getting it over with, things withheld or avoided tend to fester and get worse. But then sometimes I can see how something can be so bad that Bloglily’s indirect approach would be good; to get at something a little at time so one isn’t so overwhelmed and completely shut down until at last, piece by piece, the whole can be seen and talked about.

  9. “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 was struck by the truth of this! I was thinking about the couples I know who have faced the kinds of tragedies these novels depict, and none of them has remained “loving and supportive of one another”–they’ve all been torn apart instead. Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful reviews. It’s always so hard for me to read about children in peril, but all of these books sound very interesting.

  10. Bookboxed – how nice to hear from you! I thought the garden had probably claimed you and now I’ll have to hope for a few rainy days 😉 I’m sure you’re right and the way to write about these things is as personal as the grief itself. I feel I ought to be present in what I write, not hiding behind facts or concepts, but there in writing in a way that might be supportive. But then I change my mind every five minutes! Stefanie – I am such a fan. too, of having things out and saying them clearly. And I do agree, a gentle, stealthy approach might be a really good compliment to the truth. What a wise woman you are. Gentle Reader – I’m at a bit of a loss why I decided to write about this, loathing books in which children are in peril myself! I guess I must have wanted to get to the bottom of my own fears about it. I don’t think suffering makes people noble and kind, alas. I think it makes us behave badly, on the whole. But that’s when you really start to see fiction doing its work, and all these stories take us so far into the sorrow and then find ways out to reparation. That intrigued me, too.

  11. Once again you’ve raised so many interesting ideas and thoughts, as well as proposing several new books I’d like to add to my TBR list.

    I think it’s important for writers to deal with “the worst things,” because it gives us all an opportunity to observe how other people (albeit fictional people) handle the horrible situations that life sometimes throws at us, and in doing so, to sort of think about how we might react, and see what works and what doesn’t. Certainly every author will approach a difficult subject in a different way, just as people do.
    And while I don’t enjoy books about these “worst things,” in the same way I would other types of stories, I find them enlightening and helpful as a way of observing human nature and trying to understand various responses to life events.

    Have you read The Knitting Circle, by Ann Hood? It’s a novel about a woman whose six year old daughter dies suddenly, and the way this tragedy affects her marriage and her life. It’s very well written, with Hood’s characteristic understated yet expressive writing style. And the author has lived this experience, so the novel rings very true. (Sorry, now I’ve probably added to your TBR list as well…)

  12. What a wonderfully written and thoughtful post! I don’t think it’s inappropriate for Mother’s Day at all. Where would we be as mothers and as women without guilt and remorse? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to feel whenever anything bad happens to our children?

    The only one of the three that I’ve read is “Unless,” and I can vaguely recall that I was pretty turned off by the mother. I think she seemed kind of bland to me. I don’t know if it was because, like you say, she didn’t seem to feel remorse, or if it was because she kept trying so desperately to fit into the “mommy mold.” Heaven forbid if someone should notice that she wasn’t the ideal mother for even a second!

    I’ll have to put the other two on my TBR list. I think I’ll take awhile to read them, though, since I might have to start taking antidepressants if I read them all at once!

  13. I don’t have the question to your answer about how we talk about difficult things, but I wonder about it all the time. I have a friend whose baby boy succumbed to an incurable disease ten years ago, which was the most heart-wrenching experience I’ve ever had, to watch my friend suffer so and not to be able to do anything about it. We never really have been able to talk about it much, without doing so in a very roundabout way, but I am amazed by her strength. I’ve also discovered I have a terrible time talking about it with others (even writing this now is very hard). I’ve thought about writing a post about it, but I feel that would be intrusive, since the story is hers, not mine (despite the fact she doesn’t read my blog).

    Having been through that with a close friend, I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to lose a child without the closure of death, to not know what’s happened to him or her. I think you’re right though. My guess is that guilt would be a prominent emotion. My friend certainly felt guilty, and there was absolutely no way it could possibly have been her fault.

  14. Your question made me think of Beckett, since I’ve been reading him lately, and I rather like his way of talking about the worst things — with a combination of the darkest despair and bitter humor, the humor coming directly out of the despair. Also with no attempt at realism at all, but rather coming at the problem indirectly, by giving us absurd situations and characters that capture the feeling of despair better than a realistic portrayal might.

  15. This post is just wonderful and one I will come back to – after I’ve read Ward and Forster. I had a similar reaction to Unless. The novel both startled and moved me but at the same time held me at arms length from Reta. I wondered about that. I hadn’t thought of the guilt being an element of that distancing, I had only considered certain elements of Shields’s prose which I worried didn’t necessarily suit the kind of story she was telling.

    I love your comparison to Demeter and Persphone – how perfect!

  16. Your post made me think of Roth’s American Pastoral, where there is a lost daughter and a father who tries to come to terms with it by talking, talking, talking… and always falls short of real events. It’s interesting because most books on this subject focus on mothers and not on fathers.

  17. This is an excellent post. And I love Dorothy’s point about coupling dark despair with a bit of the absurd. Absurdity goes deep, or can go deep, somehow. It mimics (?) the feeling of the inexplicable and the unconscionable that surround senseless tragedy and horrible loss. In any case, your project sounds fascinating! TJ

  18. As always, an excellent post but one where I had nothing to contribute. However, revisiting is always worthwhile as the comments have given me additional insights and understanding. Litlove, you have the most delightful, and knowledgeable group of people here in your salon. (co-incidentally, I am reading of Demeter and Persphone in Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”)

  19. Ravenous reader – yes, I think you’re quite right. These are solidarity books, offering the comfort only available in reading of finding your own experience mirrored and understood. And I hadn’t heard of the Ann Hood…. there’s another one I will certainly be looking up! Chartroose – your comments always crack me up! I must say I’m glad that I can move onto cheerier topics! You’re quite right that motherhood goes hand in hand with guilt, no matter what it seems to me. And I know what you mean about the mother in Unless. She was accomplished in a way I don’t think I could be bothered to be if my child were in the same state as hers. Emily – what a beautiful if heartbreaking comment. I do feel so very much for your friend and I’m not surprised that it’s still hard for her, and for you, to talk about it. I thought I’d be okay writing this chapter on lost children and it has been far, far harder than I naively imagined it would be. I’m very interested though to hear you say she felt guilty (when yes, clearly nothing for her to feel guilty about at all). I read that guilt implies there was something that could have been done, and therefore counterbalances the terrifying helplessness we feel in the face of death. It’s a sort of emotional trade off. I thought that was a very interesting idea. Dorothy – what a wonderful idea to think of Beckett! He really is Mister Despair, but you’re so right, the absurd humour makes it all bearable. I’m looking forward to reading your post on him. Verbivore, thank you so much! I’m glad to know you reacted similarly to Unless, and i’m very interested in what you say about Shields’ prose. Yes, I think I can see what you mean. I’d love to know what you make of the other books if you get hold of them. Smithereens – that’s a wonderful suggestion as I very much enjoyed the Roth book that I read. Thank you – I’ll be looking out for it now! TJ – I agree about Dorothy’s comment and your own takes her point even further. The tragi-comic, the bittersweet, somehow that mix just sets the emotions in relief against one another and adds to the poignancy. And yes, curiosity is what saves me in this topic. The more fundamental the emotion, the more interested I get! Archie – how interesting that you should be reading The Golden Bough! And you are, of course, spot on. My readers (you firmly included) are just the most fantastic group of people a blogger like me could possibly hope for! 🙂

  20. Pingback: Best Book Club Books « Tales from the Reading Room

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