I have quite a few of the Orange Prize longlisted books this year and I’m hoping to read them before the shortlist comes out. The Grief of Others is written by an author, Leah Hagar Cohen, whose name is entirely new to those of us in the UK, although this turns out to be her eighth book. It is a family story, about togetherness lost and found, but it is raised above its familiar domestic concerns by the amazing beauty and luminescence of the prose.
The story begins in the place of grief. Ricky has just given birth to her third child, a son, knowing that he does not have long to live. In the fifty-seven hours he survives, she holds onto him, unable even to hand him over to her husband, John, noting the exquisite beauties of her infant, the pink of his lips ‘the pink of the rim of the sky at winter dusk’, his toenails ‘specks of abalone’, and the whorls of his ear, ‘as marvellously convoluted as any Escher drawing, the symmetry precise, the lobes little as teardrops, soft as peaches.’ Ricky has known since her fifth month scan that it was statistically improbable that he would live, but, determined to carry the pregnancy to term, if only for the intense and moving love affair she conducts with the child in the opening pages of the novel, she has told no one else.
When her husband, John, finds out that she knew all along the child would die, he is deeply resentful. John is a good man, the steady, loyal type who balances out Ricky’s more tempestuous nature, a man whose pride lies in his ability to forgive and to tolerate. But when he discovers that the story of sudden and devastating loss he has created is a fiction – or true only for him – he reaches emotional overload. It turns out that Ricky has been unfaithful to him once, in the run-up to their wedding in what was probably an act of anticipatory jitters. Her failure to involve him in their child’s impending death is, for him, a second infidelity and one that compounds all the mistakes and sorrows in between. The viability of their marriage is placed in doubt.
In the meantime, their children absorb the family tensions and play them out in different ways. Thirteen-year-old Paul is miserable at school where he is bullied. But he can’t or won’t bring himself to tell his parents. And ten-year-old Biscuit (real name Elizabeth) keeps playing hooky, almost getting herself drowned in the Hudson in the process of conducting some exotic funeral rites she’s read about in a book pinched from the local library. As their parents struggle to deal with their own problems, the children seem released on separate trajectories, stretching themselves into the shadows beyond family control as the ties that bind them all begin to unravel and unhappiness exerts its centrifugal force.
Into the narrative come two outsiders: Gordie Joiner, whose exuberant dog knocks Biscuit into the river, and Jess, John’s daughter from a teenage relationship. Gordie’s father has just died, and he feels magnetically drawn to the Ryries and the wholesome family aura they still exude despite their problems. Gordie has been alone with his introverted father for many years, and so he is blind to the tensions in the household, at once idealising the family as a place to satisfy his own sense of alienation and showing up for the reader how empty that idealisation can be. Jess, meanwhile, has come to the Ryries seeking sanctuary. She is pregnant too young, just as her mother was before her, and she has crossed the country on a whim. Her connection to her real father is very slight, consisting only in a holiday they all took together many years ago. At that point Ricky and John’s marriage was strong, the affection they felt for each other powerful, and Jess was impressed and subdued by her time spent with a family at the height of its glory. If she has returned it is in some way in search of those golden days, and the difference between then and now is almost too disconcerting for her to deal with, although she does her best.
Both Gordie and Jess have important roles to play in recalling the family to its united status. In many ways this is a novel about the irrational things we do under the weight of unresolved emotion. Such wild acts are at once essential to the individual’s survival in the short term, but damaging to everything they hold dear in the long term. How to deal with such a terrifying paradox? Leah Hagar Cohen’s compassionate and tender narrative places its trust in the unfolding of events, and in the fundamental love and trust families have for each other right down deep beneath the surface tensions and the crazy upsets. This was a beautiful novel with an almost Buddhist serenity to it, despite the emotional subject matter. Cohen’s writing is so gorgeous that I almost wished she had something more important and substantial to wrap it around than a minor domestic earthquake. But that’s not a reasonable quibble, and this was a perceptive and moving book that I enjoyed very much.