Many writers suggest that a motivation for telling stories is to set things in order, to make sense of what seems senseless. Little wonder that so many novels are preoccupied with loss and absence, abandonment and grief.
In Melanie Mah’s The Sweetest One, Chris (Chrysler) Wong thinks maybe she’s cursed. Readers don’t understand, at first, why. And she’s not prepared to share the details right away either.
But it’s clear, by the way her thoughts circle back to key questions, that things have gone wrong. There aren’t as many teenagers in the house as there once were.
“Ghosts and rebirth and heaven, oh my. What happens to us when we die? What I want is for the spirits of the people we love to remain on earth, not in a haunting, horrible way but in a way that they can see what you’re up to sometimes and still exist and not be nothing. Maybe they could give you signs of their presence – flicker lights or play significant songs on the radio. Maybe but probably not. What if the only way we live on is in the memory of others?”
These questions haunt the narrative but, in the beginning, readers are invited to get acquainted with Chris and her siblings.
“And where each of us had our little obsessions – Stef with the outdoors and our family; Gene with girls, art, and basketball; Trina with boys, clothes, and music; and me with reading and being weird – all Reggie had as outside interests were the dictionary and advanced science texts, and he probably only read those for academic benefit.”
Other weird girls who are similarly obsessed reading will almost immediately find her relatable and credible.
“I’m reading The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. If I knew an Illustrated Man, he’d tell me stories with his skin. He’d fill me up with words, pictures, ideas, everything exotic, so I wouldn’t have to leave.”
But she doesn’t know an Illustrated Man. And it seems unlikely that she’s going to meet one in her home town. Nor is she likely to venture beyond those borders, because of the curse. Her anger with one sibling who dared to do so permeates the story (inextricably bound with with her love). But that’s not entirely fair.
“Okay, one, you can’t fulfill all of a person’s needs and, two, you can’t compete with the world. We live in Buttfuck, Alberta. The smallest towns ever. There are six billion people out there, two hundred countries. Can you see why she’d wanna take a look?”
The dialogue is straightforward and ordinary, matter-of-fact pondering of big questions between teenagers (the grown-ups are on the periphery of the story, vitally important forces, influential even while broken, but Chris is at the heart of The Sweetest One): the kind of questions one keeps asking as a grown-up (if one dares to admit there are no solid answers, that is).
“Probably the thing I like best about my dad is his stories. First thing I’m gonna do if I become a writer is publish them.”
Much of the novel’s exploration of loss is secured in the silence and absence of key family figures, even more so than in Chris’ (and Conrad’s – that’s him up there, talking about wanting to reach beyond the known) deliberate explorations.
This is an understated novel, which offers readers some respite from what might otherwise be an exhaustingly sorrow-soaked tale. As with Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, readers are rooted in the aftermath, concerned with the effects experience by those left behind in the wake of trauma. There are also similarities with Riel Nason’s latest, All the Things We Leave Behind, which also looks for understanding in the past but is ultimately preoccupied with negotiating the present-day.
This is also true in Robert Olen Butler’s Perfume River. Characters here, too, are negotiating the present (to varying degrees of success) but the past resurfaces often and insistently.
One particularly impressive aspect of Perfume River is the way that, structurally, the story weaves between times. It feels untethered and organic, but requires skill and crafting on the author’s part. A scene transforms, subtly (for readers) but sensationally (for participants): time slips.
This is not disorienting for readers, because the characters (however troubled, and in the aftermath of war that trouble can be intense, even devastating) have a kind of self-awareness which keeps the story rooted for those watching it unfold.
“And all of this suddenly sounds crazy to him. Crazy that he still gives a goddamn about his father’s regard. Crazy that he’d even fantasize about saying something that risks his wife’s love. Crazy that his obsession over the first man he killed—with such mitigating circumstances—should have renewed itself all these decades later. Crazy to think that the twenty-three-year-old in 1968 has anything whatsoever to do with the man he is in 2015. And this last thought instantly seems crazy to him the other way round as well, that the twenty-three-year-old should have anything but a deep connection to the seventy-year-old. He is a historian, after all.”
He is a historian, and also a son, just as aware of the gaps between meaning in family relationships as of those in the historical record.
“Peggy says, ‘He wanted to name you William Junior, you know.’
This is not the first time he’s heard this either.
‘He loved you that much,’ she says.
What Robert wants is to avoid arguing with his mother on this night. However, he says, ‘What he wanted was his firstborn son to be just like him.’
She brightens. ‘You see?’
He has said this to her as if to disprove his father’s love. But he realizes she hears it as a demonstration of that love.”
Avery is monitoring the conditions of her father’s love too, in Emily Saso’s The Weather Inside.
You can imagine her drawing shapes in the air in front of a green screen, pulling faces to represent something distasteful moving in, like a cold front (or a frozen dessert).
“I met Gloria a dozen years ago, at my father’s funeral. She was the sweet thing clinging onto my uncle’s arm. Blonde curls stacked like vanilla cookies. Cerise CoverGirl lips. Caramel tan. Teeth white as whipped cream. Bubblegum pink sports coat with shoulder pads thick as pound cake slices. Compared to the vanilla civil servants I was acclimatized to, Gloria was a strawberry sundae.”
On Avery’s wall is a poster of a painting by Lawren Harris (“Snow”) but even more significantly, she is seeing snow. In July.
Everywhere around her, there is loss. Her mother is “layering filo pastry into a pan, the sheets as translucent as ghosts”.
Despite all of this, she tries to climb out from beneath the accumulation.
“Normal Starting now.
Watch Battlestar Galactica, season two, episode two: Valley of Darkness. Shave legs. Do fifteen sit-ups and seven push-ups. Overpluck eyebrows.”
Some things appear to be miraculous and have explanations. There is coloured snow – green, pink, red and orange – in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska, which is caused by algae.
But her father’s death has no explanation. No satisfactory explanation. His absence seems inexplicable.
And, yet, Avery’s voice is often wry and humourous, occasionally penetrating and astute (the scenes about her breakup with her boyfriend and the commentary on organized religion are especially sharp and savvy).
“I stay down here, on the floor, for hours. Fascianting. From this vantage point I see everything that’s trapped in my stupid Ikea throw rug. Dust and hair wound up in its modern swirls and bold concentric circles. I breathe in the air at this level….”
Avery’s perspective from down below makes it hard to breathe at times, for the snow is falling gently in the background throughout.
Has your reading been preoccupied with absence or loss lately? If you were going to recommend a book on the theme, do you have any favourites?