While paying for some Christmas ornaments, I asked the cashier if she was ready for the holidays. No, she told me, she was having a hard time this year because her dad died in the summer and she couldn’t bring herself to get excited or plan a big meal or take part in the usual family traditions. That’s shit, I replied, total shit. As if I know anything about real grief. She teared up. Yes, she said, it is shit. Thanks for saying that. I paid and left.
Most of what I know about grief I know from reading. And Zinzi Clemmon’s What We Lose is a tremendous education in the banality and exceptionality of loss – the way grief persists and permeats and shows up in unexpected places and in excrutiating ways. The novel achieves this by shadowing the story with the death of our protagonist’s mother. The death is at once the absolute focal point of the story, and the unseen stagehand. While there are sections that pull apart the precise experience of grief, the bulk of the text is working through other moments: a pregnancy, a romance, a friendship. But each of these other moments are coloured with grief, usually unnamed and unclaimed, but nevertheless powerfully present.
It is also a story about loneliness and home. It is written with precise language that is beautiful in its simplicity and specificity.
It is a book that made me remember to call my parents and ask how they’re doing because it reminded me they won’t always be alive, and neither will I, and that glimpsing that gaping sadness through fiction is as close to fully feeling as I want to get – ever – though I know of inevitability and loss and how naive I am to think I can put this feeling away as easily as closing a book. (And made even more poignant and heart-pulling to know that it was my mum who suggested I read it. Because what will I do when she can’t recommend books to me anymore. And so I stop thinking about that and call her to find out what she’s reading).
So, no, it’s not a cheerful holiday read. But perhaps a necessary one for inviting appreciation of those we have and had. And not in a saccharin, forget-their-faults kind of way, but in an acknowledgement of finitude and a welcoming of melancholy.