The World Without You

Joshua Henkin’s latest novel is a further contribution to the subset that deals with loss and grief in a family. The Frankls are a well-off and well-educated family, their children all grown, when youngest son, Leo, is killed in Iraq on a journalistic assignment covering the American occupation. When the novel opens, a year has passed since his death and the family are gathering at their holiday home in Lenox over the fourth of July celebrations in order to stage a private memorial service, the original funeral having been usurped by media interest and politics. But as ever with families, their ability to focus wholly on the person lost is compromised by the disruptions and consequences that Leo’s death has had on their own lives. His parents, Marilyn and David, have the unpleasant news to break that they are splitting up after 42-years of marriage, unable to support one another in grief. When asked in a social situation how many children they have, Marilyn replied four, whilst David – the conflict-avoidant, unobtrusive partner – says three. In the fallout of this conversation in which everything is said about their irreconcilable approaches to loss, Marilyn takes the decision to leave. And once they have decided to tell their children after the memorial service, Marilyn cannot help but blurt it out the moment the family is gathered together.

Those so-called children are all adults with problems of their own. Clarissa and her husband, Nathaniel are trying without much success to conceive, the consequence of a sudden fierce urge on Clarissa’s part in the wake of her brother’s death. Lily, who has told partner Malcolm to stay home the better to deal with her relatives, is struggling with guilt about her lack of emotion, and Noelle, the problem child of the family, cannot help but continue to cause trouble. She has left America behind her to become an Orthodox Jew living in Israel with her husband and four young sons. Whilst the rest of her family is ferociously anti-Bush (and if you love Bush, this is not the novel for you), Noelle sees in him a fellow enemy against terrorism and blames the Americans and their occupation for Leo’s death instead. But whilst these political machinations promise much, they are continually overshadowed by the usual family tensions. Marilyn and David have gone to great expense to buy kosher plates and food for Noelle and her family so they can eat together, but Noelle still refuses, bringing corned beef hash sandwiches out of her luggage, on the grounds that the kitchen itself is not kosher. You can’t help but feel that she’s just that sort of person, though, awkward, stubborn, ornery.

To complete the cast of characters there’s Thisbe, Leo’s widow, who brings their three-year-old son, Calder with her. Thisbe is in a new relationship, one that has become serious far more quickly than she expected, and she is torn as to the appropriateness of confessing as much to her in-laws. Thisbe is a solitary figure in the midst of this big and bruising family, uncertain how much contact she wants – or is obliged – to have with them in the future. And to round things off, in the background is Gretchen, the uber-rich granny, a formidable figure who is more than prepared to use her wealth to manipulate her descendents.

So you can see that this is a book with a big cast of characters, and Joshua Henkin does a fine job of developing them. Drama and event are eschewed and instead, as the family mill about the locality, wasting time on holiday in the build-up to the memorial itself, we are witness to long, meandering conversations between them in which they conjure up the past, consider how Leo’s loss has affected them and struggle to find a way through emotional obstacles. There will be no great revelations, not even much in the way of change, for this is a portrait of a family in uncomfortable transition, and Henkin’s approach here is profoundly realistic.

For me this was a psychologically astute novel and a brilliant portrait of the kind of unwitting ugliness that families indulge in during troubled times. The injunction to be true to oneself might not be so enthusiastically propounded if we saw often enough from the outside how flawed those selves may be. But for me, the delicate pace falls too often into stultification – just I suppose as nostalgia messes with real time – as conversational exchanges become vehicles for more and more back story, all of it contributing to a layered representation of family life, but at the expense of penetration into the events of the moment. It’s hard to look backwards in depth and keep an interesting, urgent conversation going in the foreground. Equally the possibilities for drama here, both emotional and political, are rich and it feels a little strange occasionally that Henkin doesn’t make as much as he could of his complex situation. However, this is a narrative of quality, without a graceless sentence in it, and it’s ambitious, too, in its refusal to sentimentalise or sensationalise. The peculiar way that grief is processed by behaviour as much as words is beautifully made manifest.


12 thoughts on “The World Without You

  1. A new discovery for me. I’ve just looked through his other books and ‘Matrimony’ is the one that appeals to me most. Have you read it?

    • Yes, I have, and enjoyed it very much. That’s actually where I would advise you to start with him in any case, so good choice! I’d love to know what you make of it.

  2. What a compassionate, thoughtful review. As one who struggles regularly with what she “owes” her rather large extended family versus what she truly wants to do, I actually felt a little anxiety reading your review while still being intrigued by the premise. I’ve “pinned” the book – we’ll see if I can bring myself to read it!

    • Courtney, I promise you it is not an emotionally taxing book at all. The pace is gentle and leisurely and nothing dreadful happens, it’s just families being their usual selves! Flick through it in the bookstore to get a feel for the prose and you’ll soon know whether it’s right for you. And I think that worry about the extended family is universal – you are not alone!

    • Charlotte, I feel sure you will appreciate the quality of the writing in this one. It’s very much a writer’s book. Would love to know what you think of it!

  3. I would like to read this very much. I like those stories about families and how they handle – or cannot handle – loss and grief.
    I like Ayelet Waldman’s novels for the way she treats this sort of bereavement and how it tests family dynamics.

    • Caroline, yes, this is definitely up your street, I’d say. Very interesting family dynamics with loss very much the central focus. And thank you for the recommendation. I am a fan of family stories and always keen to hear about good ones.

  4. I hate to admit it, but I don’t often read novels like this–there is something too raw and ‘fresh’ about them (I can read historical novels about difficult contemporary events but not ‘current’ events–like what’s going on in Afghanistan or Iraq), but this does sound very good. I need to get past my weirdness as I suspect i’d like the story about the family dynamics.

    • Danielle, if you haven’t read Joshua Henkin before, I’d recommend you begin with Matrimony, which focuses on the up and down emotional life of a young couple and is very readable. I perfectly understand why you wouldn’t necessarily want to read about such current events. If it’s any consolation, they come up very little in the narrative, and it is not at all a political novel. But try something else by him first to see if you like him.

  5. At first glance I thought you had read “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman, a nonfiction book about what the world would be like if humans suddenly disappeared, and I thought, well now that is off-type for you 🙂 The World Without You sounds like a very emotion-packed novel. Did you find all the grief and other issues draining or is that somehow mitigated in the narrative or through style?

    • Lol!! Ha, one day I will read something completely out of left field, just to give you a little surprise. But not yet. 😉 As for this novel, it’s actually not as emotionally fraught as it sounds. I never got teary or emotional at any point while reading it (and I will do so without much effort on the author’s part!), oh well maybe just a bit at the memorial service itself, but that was only a few pages. It avoids any sort of sentimentality or emotional manipulation, which gives it an extra tick in my book as I am not always in the mood to have my heart wrung out! So definitely, the narrative style keeps you thinking and remembering the happier past, in fact, so not a box-of-hankies book.

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