The Grief of Others/Leah Hager Cohen: Reflections

Sunday, September 18, 2011

There are so many ways to tell a story.  That much is obvious, so fatefully true.  Authors have to decide—over and again, they decide—whose story they are writing, how much to keep on the page, where knowing must cede to suggesting, how time will be cordoned off and bent, how perfectly or imperfectly the tale will end, how many hearts will break.

Yesterday afternoon and early this morning I have been reading Leah Hager Cohen's new novel The Grief of Others (Riverhead).  I have been thinking about structure, detail, illusion, and the lived life that allows this kind of realist fiction to be written.  I have felt, as I always feel when reading any of Cohen's books, a great affinity for this author who puts so much of her heart and seeing into the books she writes.

Grief is jammed with sensual beauty, long, tumbling passages of spectacularly specific insight into not just the who of Cohen's characters—a husband and wife, their two children, a young man, a young woman, and a big loving dog—but the what of their lives.  Ricky, the wife and mother, is a "quant"—a financial engineer.  Husband John, employed by a college, is a stagecrafter, the sort of man who had seduced his wife by giving her access to the magic of theater: "how you'd mix perlite (the tiny white balls in potting soil) with paint in order to bring texture to an interior surface; how you'd spray a little paint on the artificial flora, in order to pull it into the world of the show; how, for a big backdrop, you'd spray fixative on charcoal, then tint it and build up a few layers of paint to give it the depth and richness of an oil painting." Both lose their third child just fifty-seven hours after he is born.

A prologue and five discrete book parts take us into this year of grief, and the trust and distrust that entombs it.  Will Ricky and John's marriage (already unstable, despite much that is beautiful) survive?  What will happen to the ten-year-old daughter, a thoughtful truant, who keeps reenacting the funeral that never was?  What about Paul, the thirteen year old son, mired in middle school bullying?  And what about Jess, John's daughter from another relationship, who shows up with worries all her own?

Cohen builds these characters—their relationships, their failures, their needs—attentively, gracefully, with great knowing.  There's not even the hint of the fraudulent about this fiction.  This is no straightforward tale, but one of deep dives and time bends, and I found it deeply moving.

You will also, I am sure, find Leah Hager Cohen's blog a work of beauty.  I go there from time to time when I am in search of a quiet dwelling place—of words from a deeply thoughtful author who writes not just about her books and their journeys into the world, but about real life as a daughter, girlfriend, and mom.


Serena said...

Sounds like a thought-provoking read. Thanks for the reflections on it.

Lilian Nattel said...

I'm going to have a look at the blog and the book, Beth. Thanks!

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