Two Books About Grief

I’ve just read two novels, both about the death of someone the protagonist loves, both about grief and guilt.

I started reading the first, “A monster calls”, by Patrick Ness, with Raffie (aged 9). The protagonist, Conor, is 13. It is Conor’s mother who is dying. He is having a terrible, terrible time. He is consumed with worry about his mother, who is in the later stages of cancer and is, early in the book, taken into hospital. She is a single mother. The father lives with a new family in the USA and only visits briefly and is rather useless.   Conor’s mother’s mother expects to take over as carer for Conor but she is a busy working woman who is also consumed with worry about her daughter, so has little time for Conor. Conor has fallen out with his best friend after she let the word out at school that his mother has cancer.   He is also the victim of a particularly cruel bully. He has nightmares. And then the monster – a fantastic literary creation, an embodiment of the life force moulded from the yew tree at the back of Conor’s house – arrives.

Yesterday my palliative-care nurse, whose remit includes everything from the pills I take to preparing my family for my death, gave me a very clear “beware” look when I said I was reading it with Raffie. Raffie and I had still not finished it, so this morning I read the remaining few pages by myself – and decided I would not share them with him. They are too tough. They made me cry. There is a big difference between a 9-year-old and a 13-year-old, and, unless Raffie asks (I doubt he will), I’ll quietly put the book away. I don’t think he is having nightmares as cruel or as Conor’s, and we’re arranging for one of the palliative-care nurses who specialises in what a death in the family means for the child, to talk to him.

The second book is ‘The Shock of the Fall’, by Nathan Filer. Mick, from the Book Group, chose it as the next book for our group to read, so we’ll be talking about it there next week. The protagonist, Matt, is between 6 and 19 over the course of the story. When he was 9, his brother, Simon, two years older, died in an accident which, Matt feels, was his (Matt’s) fault. In a jumbled-up sequence of episodes sometimes as confusing as the state of Matt’s head, we follow Matt’s course from a ‘normal’ schoolboy, bright and popular, in a usual kind of happy-ish family, through a period where his mother went mad and kept him almost imprisoned at home, to drink and drugs, moving out of home, hearing his brother’s voice in all sorts of places, breakdown, getting sectioned, schizophrenia diagnosis, life in the psychiatric ward, being let out, social workers and the Day Centre, and writing his own story. The book is written with first-person intensity (complete with fractured narrative), and left me experiencing Matt’s paranoia and guilt myself after a session of reading. Matt makes a nice metaphor of ‘the small print’, not only of advertisements and agreements but also of social situations: all those understood points of how you are expected to respond and behave, where you might get punished if you do not read them carefully and interpret them correctly. He explores his family tree to see where the snake – mental illness – had reared its head in his family before.

STORY SPOILER WARNING

Here is where I warn you, the reader: I’m about to tell you enough of the endings to spoil the stories. We had Major Sanctions on Harry Potter Story Spoilers (HPSS’s) when Boris and Maddie (the two older children, now 22 and 18) were of Harry Potter ages. If you are sufficiently intrigued to plan to read either book, stop reading here! (This is like the bit in The BBC News on a Saturday evening, in England in the 1970s and sometimes even now, where the newsreader says “the football results are coming up on the screen; look away now if you intend to watch Match of the Day later”.)

In ‘A Monster Calls’, the monster says to Conor “You must tell the truth or you will never leave this nightmare”, “You will be trapped here alone for the rest of your life”. In ‘The Shock of the Fall’, towards the end we have “I’ve told you about my first stretch in mental hospital, but I’ve been back in since. And I know I will again. We move in circles, this illness and me.”

In the first book, Conor does tell the truth and the ending is full of hope. In the second, we still have some glimmer of hope – Matt has after all been able to write the story, and also arranges a memorial for Simon – but this is ten years later. My reading of the second book, primed by both the first book and my situation, is that it is an exploration of what it is like when the protagonist (and his family) does not tell the truth, with the schizophrenia coming out of the bottled-up grief and guilt. Both books address the same moment.

Both are committed to the benefits of talking about it.

I do my best to call a spade a spade: to say “die” rather than “pass away”, “after I die” rather than “when I’m no longer here”. (Neither Conor, nor his mother, father or grandma, can bring themselves to use the word ‘die’ throughout the first book.)

I don’t always manage. Specially when Raffie is present: sometimes it feels gratuitously harsh.

And, more important, I’ve told Raffie (and of course Boris and Maddie). I’ve told them “I am going to die”. And sooner rather than later, most likely within five years. It’s a heavy topic and I don’t go out of my way to bring it up again, but I’ve told them, and they won’t forget. Both books give me a pat on the back for that.

Afterword

We should always be aware of vested interests. Both authors – Patrick Ness and Nathan Filer – make their livings with words. They are good with words. They probably like words. Given a problem, they are probably more likely than other members of society to come up with a verbal rather than a non-verbal solution.  They would be likely to favour a talking or writing cure to a problem like grief over a pharmaceutical one, or a physical one such as yoga.  Books tend to be biased to verbal solutions, just like capitalists tend to be biased towards capitalist solutions. It doesn’t mean they are wrong, just biased.

Published by

Adam Kilgarriff

I'm a scientist who has set up and runs a small company. I'm married (to Gill Lamden) with three children, Boris (22), Maddie (18) and Raffie (9) (as at today, 28 January 2015, in case I forget to update!) We live in Brighton, UK. Last November (2014) I found I had bowel cancer (stage 5; not curable; only 'manageable'). We've been adjusting to that since (and it is what provoked me to start the blog) My scientific area is linguistics, with my specialisms being corpus linguistics, computational linguistics, and lexicography - or, best of all, the intersection of all three. Since 2004, my company, Lexical Computing Ltd., has been providing a web service, the Sketch Engine, to linguists and lexicographers wanting to find out about words, using corpus-driven methods. Customers include Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Collins, Macmillan, Le Robert, Dictionary.com and around a hundred universities worldwide.

7 thoughts on “Two Books About Grief”

  1. Hi Adam.
    As a society I think we are neither familiar nor generally comfortable with acknowledging dying when it intrudes into our personal and family lives. It seems good that you are managing to be straightforward about it.
    And then there is the wonderful world of words. Your descriptions makes me want to read both books (and I’ve managed not to read the ‘spoiler’ section of your post). If I get round to them, I’ll muse of the vested interests of writers – not something I’ve thought about before.
    Kate xx

  2. I’m so glad you use the words “die” and “death” and talk openly about it. When people use euphemisms, either it’s ambiguous, e.g. “X is not here any more” or the other person knows perfectly well what you mean, so it’s pointless. To say someone has passed away doesn’t make it any easier to cope with their death, or come as less of a shock, so why bother? I think it makes it worse, as it’s then seen as something that’s not really to be talked about, which can lead to all manner of emotional problems further down the line. I’ve been listening avidly to Radio 4’s Home Front serial (highly recommended btw) where children (and adults) regularly have to cope with the concept of death. What’s abundantly clear there, however, is that being upfront about it is far better than any ambiguity or even any kind of uncertainty about whether someone is alive/will live or not. Death is always terrible, but I think knowing it’s going to happen is so much less terrible.

  3. Dear Adam
    I think it’s brave of you to talk about dying with your youngest child, but also that being gratuitously harsh or saying it over and over is not necessary. People still understand what the euphemisms mean after all. Very fortunate to have a palliative care nurse to help. I stumbled on a site called Winston’s wish which offers ideas for helping children deal with bereavement. I wish it had been available when I was a kid.

    1. Sounds like you are steering a very wise path, Adam, between talking openly but not harshly. Your children are blessed to be steered by such wisdom!!

      I certainly dislike the popular American expression: “passed” rather than “died.” And I notice that many Australians are now using the same term.

  4. What is this with book groups ? Is it to turn reading into group therapy ? Hello, I’m John, and I’ve been reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Many negative book reviews on Amazon says things like “I had to read this for my book group and hated every page of it”. So why read it ? Prompted by my daughter I started volume one of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Mein Kampf (no, really, that is the Norwegian title translated into German). I gave it up (and gave it to Age UK) at page 103. We mostly read books anyway to have something to talk about around the office water cooler, as well as Wayne Rooney, but book groups seem to be institutionalizing reading. I wonder if I can Google ‘book groups’ to check out their reading lists ? Will they be like Richard and Judy’s Book Club ? I don’t want to conceal things from this group, so here’s what I have been reading recently:
    Nostromo – Joseph Conrad
    Girl In A Band – Kim Gordon
    The Peripheral – William Gibson
    The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad
    Kim went on Women’s Hour to hype her book (I don’t usually listen to Women’s Hour – my daughter emailed me to check it out on iPlayer); sad really; she was on at the same time as Caitlin Moran and her sister, hyping their sitcom.
    I rather enjoy autobiographies. Kim’s is shot through with deep sadness, neatly circling us back to grief (in her case over a broken marriage).

  5. Your afterword is very wise. The bias of the verbally adept to think that words ‘sort things out’, and that having described a monster which has emerged out of a yew tree (for example) somehow one has then contained and tamed it.
    It’s not quite the same, I know, but what you wrote reminded me of Logan Pearsall-Smith’s: “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”

    1. In his Afterword Adam wrote of the two authors “They would be likely to favour a talking or writing cure to a problem like grief over a pharmaceutical one, or a physical one such as yoga.”

      I seem to remember that Adam’s CV includes a qualification in counselling, suggesting that he himself would favour (or once would have favoured) a talking cure to a problem like grief. I’m not sure (yet) how this impacts on what Adam wrote about these two authors. Clearly a talking solution can run alongside a physical one. The old school “pulling your socks up” solution (now known as CBT) still has a lot going for it. There are probably many people (i.e. men) for whom a talking solution won’t work. Boxing gloves and a punchbag … now that’s what I call a solution.
      I’m off to A&E now to get my tongue extracted from my cheek.

Comments are closed.