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.
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.