switterbug (Betsey)'s Reviews > The Grief of Others

The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen
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's review
Sep 30, 2011

really liked it
Read from September 24 to 26, 2011

What is grief? It has no physical properties, but it fills a room, a life, many lives, and creates pain. It's bigger than a boulder, but is amorphous. You can't domesticate or quarantine grief, but it can isolate, alienate, afflict. The sun rises and sets, our shadows shorten and lengthen, but grief reaches into darkness and obscures the light. Its stride is long and its span is spacious, but it has no measure. Grief is timeless, but time heals, according to the maxim.

This novel is about a family whose grief is palpable in every room, in every sigh, but they aren't discussing their shared mourning. Its presence is living proof, and it is kindling the death of love and connection. Paradoxically, this loss of connection is so perceptible that they are all hung together in an imperceptible noose, connected in sorrow. Hope is a tenuous flame fluttering in a precarious wind.

The Ryries of upper state NY each have a story that funnels into the larger story of their family life. John entertained the gypsy life of theatric design, and when his wife, Ricky, the financial engineer, put her foot down, he got a steady job at a local community college. Ricky earns a corporate paycheck, but is resentful of John's more laid back and essentially fun job. Truly, the resentments build both ways, and when tragedy strikes, they fail to lean on each other in a healing manner. Damaging secrets come out later, and lead to sequestered grieving. On top of all that, a visitor comes--a blast from the past, someone who is part of the presence of everything.

John and Ricky's daughter, Biscuit (Elizabeth), is a sixth-grader, hoarding a book from the library on the ritual burying and funereal practices of worldwide cultures. Her brother, Paul, is thirteen and in a very awkward phase, subject to relentless school bullying. Enter Gordie and his dog, Ebie, who meet Biscuit down by the river. Biscuit is doing who-knows-what with ashes and bone and an egg, and gets pushed in the water by Ebie. The drying off process leads to Gordie and Ebie meeting the whole Ryrie family and their visitor. The multivalent chorus of the theme and story whorls around all these characters, and their private anguishes and public displays of untidy and unresolved grief keep the reader engaged until the suspenseful resolve.

Cohen has a knack for the "mot juste," Flaubert's term for the exact right word. She is a magician with words, metaphors, and imagery. The sentences and passages are delicate and edgy, muscular and creamy. Every felicitous line is meaningful and enchanting. Moreover, her tone and mood is suggestive and tender without sentimentality; you feel with the characters and move with the story.

The drawback is within the primary thread of the set-up. Ricky makes a decision, setting up the initial complexity of her tragedy, that is impossibly difficult to swallow, and it becomes a thorn in the story's authenticity. Although the author braids it into a beautiful circle, and creates a provocative sense of discovery of human nature--a discovery that is genuine and believable--the logistics of penning this structure in order to lead to this enlightenment requires a quantum leap of disbelief suspension.

However, this is a book I would recommend to literature lovers who enjoy ripe, eloquent domestic dramas. Cohen's impressive curvature of prose and fluent, credible understanding of grief and all its counterintuitive responses and follicular journey, carry the reader into places beyond the bend. THE GRIEF OF OTHERS ultimately illuminates the grace of self and unity with being and beings.
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Reading Progress

09/29/2011 "Finished--just working on review."

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