Nocturne & The Obituary Writer
Nocturne & The Obituary Writer There are two books this spring about grief – one a novel and one non-fiction. Helen Humphreys is a poet and novelist, who has written award-winning fiction for many years. Her new book is about the recent death of her brother, Martin, and her own experience with grief. Nocturne begins with Helen discovering that death makes us all behave in ways we’d never have imagined.
I picked up this little book, feeling I wanted to avoid reading it, but knowing I had to. I knew that Helen Humphreys would write a book that would cut to the quick. She writes about how desperately she misses Martin, not being able to pick up the phone and talk. And the little things that get to you, like all the things that have changed in her life since his death, a new dog after the death of the old one he knew, a new car, one he doesn’t know about. A new house, one where he has never been. We age and they do not, we find social engagements difficult, conversation seems hollow, we have difficulty coping when anything bad happens.
She writes, “part of me went with you”. We age and they do not, our lives become unrecognizable – we are no longer the same person we were before this death.
I would say that for anyone who has experienced grief as the result of the death of a person they loved - a sibling, a spouse, a child - this is a book you may find sometimes difficult to read, but one that acknowledges all that you have felt, and are feeling. It is a gift for us that Helen Humphreys has used her own grief and her mastery of language to give us Nocturne.
Ann Hood is another author who knows about grief. Her first novel The Knitting Circle is about a couple grieving after the death of their young daughter, based on the author’s own experience. Her new book, The Obituary Writer, is again a novel about grief.
The Obituary Writer tells the stories of two women. We begin with the story of Claire in 1960, before we meet Vivien in 1919. We follow the lives of these two women through the coming years. Vivien was a young woman living in San Francisco at the time of the earthquake of 1906, in love with a man who may or may not have died. Vivien, almost accidentally, became an obituary writer after her own loss. She is assertive yet kind, as she encourages her clients to talk about their loved ones, and uses their memories and their love to write an obituary that captures their essence. She has become successful and sought after, she knows “unless you have suffered loss you cannot understand the depth of it”.
Ann Hood has used this character to write about the death of children, how difficult it is to capture in words the life of a child “who had just taken her first steps”, “the thousand days or less they had lived”, and sometimes “there are truly no words”. Vivien experiences grief each day, her own and that of others, “a wall of pain” “a wave”. Those who have suffered loss grieve, mourn and must find a way to accommodate their loss and continue to live, knowing just how very fragile life is.
Claire is a young wife and mother, at a time when that role was considered to be enough to satisfy any woman, and to want more was unacceptable. Well brought up, taught household economies by her mother, Claire cooks in her kitchen with her matching fridge and stove.
It is when Claire embarks on an ill-advised affair that this world begins to disintegrate. This is the swinging 60s, Kennedy is about to be elected. There is a lot of smoking and drinking, pregnant or not. Claire’s is probably not the only affair going on in her circle. After her husband becomes aware of her infidelity her days become even more difficult as she juggles her young daughter’s needs, the demands of an aging mother-in-law, and her own struggling marriage.
Sensitive and entertaining Ann Hood has again created a cast of characters whose lives reflect our own, in a novel that brings together the lives of these two women to a very satisfying conclusion.