A Widow's Story: A Memoir

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How P.D. James and Detective Fiction Healed My Broken Heart

My beloved father died suddenly almost five years ago. As it is for everyone who loses someone they love, my family and I found ourselves devastated. Adding to the shock of our loss was the guilt-ridden fact that my mother had not been there with my father during his final days to potentially catch the signs of his rapidly declining heart -- she’d been with me, helping to manage my three young children while my husband was on a business trip. Afterwards, the balanced weights of grief and regret settled on my shoulders, refusing to let go. Breathing was difficult. Prayer left me more drained as I grappled with my anger at losing our family patriarch so early in his life, at the age of 59 and only the beginning of his grandfatherhood, and my shame at the role my own selfishness played. Mothering and remaining a partner to my husband felt like playacting, as I tried to be brave in the face of my shattered grasp on what my life now was. To state perhaps the obvious, I’d never known life without my father. Words have always been a place of solace for me, but during that turbulent time my own writing became splintered, as though I couldn't hold a full thought inside my mind (which, clinically speaking, is exactly what grief does to our cognitions). A fog seeped into my neural connections, and consequently my interactions with the world became murky and indistinct. Unable to rely upon my own narrative, I sought out the stories of others who’d been submerged by grief, only to eventually surface for air and write about it.  By a few months in, I’d completed what seems to have become required reading for the recently bereaved, gobbling up Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story in hungry waves of reading at night when I couldn’t sleep. But, despite the compassion and empathy offered by these authors, I remained adrift as a woman, a daughter, and a reader. I wanted someone to tell me how to do it; how to live life without my father as an anchor. To my own surprise, I would not find my resilience in memoir, but in a fictional detective. I discovered P.D. James at my local library, her series of mysteries impressively commanding an entire shelf all for themselves. I had planned to search the library’s database, quite literally, for “Widow Stories.” Despite the fact that I was not a widow, these were the primary books that seemed available to me as I grieved. It was as I wandered the aisles looking for an open kiosk to conduct my search that I noticed James’s work. I’d never read detective fiction before -- it being a genre I had often (although I’m ashamed to admit it now) maligned as kitschy or formulaic. Despite this bias, I skeptically selected The Lighthouse from the shelf of offerings, as much out of desperation as curiosity. I’ve always been an evening reader, and this pattern was set even more strictly during the months after my father’s death. The waning hours of winter daylight were when my anxious bereavement became the most acute, but as I pored through The Lighthouse over the next several nights, Commander Adam Dalgliesh’s controlled approach to the passions of life became a beacon to me. I found comfort in his cool-headedness as he faced the greatest cruelties human connection could muster. Here was a character who clearly felt deeply, penning acclaimed poetry in his spare time, but who also managed to subvert his ardency into a more functional rationality. Dalgliesh became a model for me of how to manage the pain of life’s losses without losing myself. In The Lighthouse, one of the reader’s first encounters with Dalgliesh, and subsequently my introduction to the detective himself, finds the policeman-poet examining the body of a strangulation victim. P.D. James offers the reader a glimpse behind the detective’s eyes as she details the assessments Dalgliesh makes of the body and the crime scene. The victim’s height and physical features are precisely noted. His clothing is assessed with an intense scrutiny and the furniture in the room examined for clues to the inner workings of the victim. The entire scene is rational, logical, and emotionally tepid. And then, James offers a peek at the vibrant pulse below Dalgliesh’s detached demeanor: The enclosing sheet seemed to have softened, defining rather than obliterating the sharp point of the nose and the bones of the quiescent arms. And now, thought Dalgliesh, the room will take possession of the dead. It seemed to him as it always did, that the air was imbued with the finality and the mystery of death; the patterned wallpaper, the carefully positioned chairs, the Regency desk, all mocking with their normality and permanence the transience of human life. When I first read that passage, I was physically struck by the brutal truth of Dalgliesh’s observation. James’s words conjured the painful memory of returning home from the hospital to find the food my father had filled the refrigerator with just a day or so before his death. Milk, potato salad, his favorite cheese packaged from the deli, a few slices taken out. It was a chocolate cake with white frosting, one slice missing, that made me stifle a primal howl that night. The cake sat unassumingly on the middle shelf, but all I could picture was my father cutting himself a piece to enjoy as he sat alone in the house, waiting for his wife to come home. My mother and I promptly cleared out the fridge, both of us too ravaged by grief and guilt to care about the waste. James, through Dalgliesh, helped me to acknowledge, and even accept, that rawness would now lurk underneath the normalcy of life. Following those observations of Dalgliesh’s in The Lighthouse, the reader sees him immediately shift back into a state of practiced analysis and get on with his job of solving the murder. It is made clear to the reader that Dalgliesh feels a great deal -- he simply refuses to allow those feelings to inhibit his capacity to do his duty. If ever there was a lesson for the recently bereaved, I felt that was it: You can feel everything, but life must move forward. You are needed. I won’t argue with those who say Dalgliesh represents a character who manages life by intellectualizing the emotional and, consequently, repressing actual feeling. I fully agree with that interpretation. When I discovered James and Dalgliesh, my emotional life was threatening to swallow me whole. Too anxious to sleep, my mental faculties drained from the ticker-tape thoughts of “Why didn’t I just hire a babysitter?” and “Why didn’t we make him go to the doctor?”, and my maternal routine involving a daily dose of chastising my children for what I perceived as their easy recuperation from their own loss of their grandfather, I had lost my balance. Reading The Lighthouse, followed by The Murder Room and A Certain Justice, Dalgliesh’s compartmentalized reactions to murder and treachery were the balm I so desperately needed. I want to emphasize that the comfort I derived from James’s writing was not due to any "coziness" embedded in her mysteries. As noted in Val McDermid’s foreword to James’s recent short story collection published posthumously, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, “she was anything but cosy...She understands that murder is nasty and brutal, that it is fueled by the most malevolent of motives, and she’s not afraid to face that darkness head-on.” Rather, it was James’s frank handling of the brutalities of life that spoke to me. Losing my father was a childhood terror made real, but much like Dalgliesh, I did not have to succumb to these atavistic truths. In The Murder Room, James describes Dalgliesh’s encounter with a victim burned alive in his own car: Through the half-closed door he could see the ulna, and a few burnt fragments of cloth adhered to a thread of muscle. All that could burn on the head had been destroyed and the fire had extended to just above the knees. The charred face, the features obliterated, was turned towards him and the whole head, black as a spent match, looked unnaturally small. The mouth gaped in a grimace, seeming to mock the head’s grotesquerie. Only the teeth, gleaming white against the charred flesh, and a small patch of cracked skull proclaimed the corpse’s humanity. She offers no screens for the reader. This death was full of horror and malice. In all of James’s murder mysteries, the brutal facts of death are on full display for the reader. It is this transparency, I believe, that put Dalgliesh’s emotional balance into stark relief for me. A detective who had seen the worst in humanity, and yet kept his own in the process. Towards the end of The Murder Room, the murderer safely imprisoned and justice achieved in the only way possible for the victims, Dalgliesh reflects: He felt both sad and exhausted but the emotion was not strange to him; this was often what he felt at the end of a case. He thought of the lives which his life had so briefly touched, of the secrets he had learned, the lies and the truths, the horror and the pain. Those lives so intimately touched would go on, as would his. Walking back... he turned his mind to the weekend ahead and was filled with a precarious joy. If Adam Dalgliesh could encounter the worst of mankind and yet still perceive joy in life, I began to believe that I could figure out a way to feel joy again without my father. Over the next year, I read James’s entire catalogue, which in its breadth covers detective fiction (the Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray series), science fiction (Children of Men), nonfiction (The Maul and the Pear Tree), and her own memoir (Time to Be in Earnest). As I learned more about James herself, her personal story also became a model of how to restart my life without a father. James lost her husband at an early age after his struggles with mental illness. She then proceeded to raise her two daughters on her own while working full time as a civil servant and writing on the weekends. Knowing this now, I look back on my initial trip to the library with a sense of mild bemusement--although I hadn’t known it then, I’d discovered in the library that day another widow and her wide world of stories that would eventually see me out of my grief. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

With Love, From Julian Barnes

Through the Window, Julian Barnes’s sparkling new collection of essays, is a veritable treasure house of letters on novels and their authors. His subjects span the Anglo and French traditions within which Barnes work is rooted – Flaubert’s Parrot and England, England highlight in his own fictional oeuvre the interplay between the two – from Orwell and Kipling on the one hand to Mérimée and Houellebecq on the other. This is not to say that the American pantheon is neglected. Far from it. Barnes is not immune, for example, to the work of John Updike. “Any historian wanting to understand the texture, smell, feel and meaning of bluey-white collar life in ordinary America between the 1950s and 1990s will need little more than the Rabbit Quartet,” Barnes concludes, labeling Updike’s Angstrom sequence “the greatest postwar American novel": It’s rare for a work of this length to get even better as it goes on, with Rabbit at Rest the strongest and richest of the four books. In the last hundred pages or so, I found myself slowing deliberately, not so much because I didn’t want the book to end, as because I didn’t want Rabbit to die. The collection concludes with an essay of searing clarity on Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir A Widow’s Story. Barnes is somewhat kind to the book in general terms, labeling it “novelistic and expansive” and arguing that in focusing in the main on “the dark interiors, the psycho-chaos of grief,” Oates plays to her strengths. Moreover, he goes some way to defending the lax character of her prose, arguing that if it appears repetitive, obsessive, or incoherent, well, “so is grief.” Barnes is critical, and oddly so, of Oates’s failure to disclose her decision to remarry following the death of her first husband: This isn’t a moral comment: Oates may quote Marianne Moore’s line that “the cure for loneliness is solitude,” but many people need to be married, and therefore, at times, remarried. However, some readers will feel they have good case for breach of narrative promise. Was not Ray “the first man in my life, the last man, the only man”? And what about all those perennials she planted? In the main, however, Barnes appears drawn towards a certain type of trans-Channel writer. His take on Rudyard Kipling is at once jarring and refreshing in the way in which it seeks to highlight the bond between Kipling and France. “He seems to us such an English writer, such a British imperialist, such a pungent purveyor of the lore and language of his tribe,” Barnes writes, “that it comes as a surprise to find how well known and widely read he was in France.” Such was his fame in fact that when Kipling’s family would tour the country by automobile after the war, they found that “three days was the maximum they could stay in one place without his identity being discovered,” without being invited into the local church by the priest or accosted in the street by grateful soldiers. In terms of the latter, Barnes notes how on a tour of the front lines in 1915 in his role as a war correspondent, Kipling discovered to his astonishment how well read his stories and poems were in the trenches. Indeed, the bond between Kipling and France was “made lifelong – and sealed with blood – by the Great War.” Kipling spent a good deal of his postwar life there, working with the War Graves Commission, advising that Ecclesiasticus 44:14 – “Their name liveth for evermore” – be chiseled into the Stones of Remembrances. Kipling came to admire in France “what he thought his own country could do with more of,” qualities of “work ethic, thrift, simplicity.” Enforced military service, Kipling believed, “promoted not only civic virtue but also a fundamental seriousness of mind which he felt his compatriots lacked.” But Barnes goes further, attempting to assert that France would influence his literature, too. “Direct literary influence is small,” Barnes concedes, yet he sees in his work an inspiration “of a more diffuse kind.” Kipling was criticized for being “democratic in personnel and truthful in theme and detail. An early exposure to French literature,” Barnes concludes, citing Rabelais, Balzac, and Maupassant, “would have endorsed this aesthetic.” Barnes also sees a converse influence, of Kipling on France, though this appears to be minimal, too. In a second essay on Kipling, Barnes analyses Jérôme and Jean Tharaud’s 1902 roman à clef, Dingley, l’illustre écrivain, perceiving the protagonist to be unmistakably Kipling – “his energy, his ceaseless curiosity are all acknowledged; what is questioned is the use to which the famous imagination and the public fame are put.” In this vein, the novel emerges as a “critique of British imperialism and a warning against literary populism.” Barnes’s efforts to impress the link between Kipling and France feel clean and are indeed intriguing. It is evident that Kipling, like many Englishmen, had Francophile tendencies, with a feeling for the landscape and the people. But Barnes is less persuasive when attempting to expound literary influence. Not so with his take on Ford Madox Ford novel of the First World War, The Good Soldier. “France certainly provided The Good Soldier’s point of emulative origin,” Barnes states, noting Ford’s ambition to do for the English novel what Maupassant’s Fort comme la mort did for the French form. Ford sought to imitate the “violently transgressive passion” of Maupassant, applying the “tropes of torments” of Fort comme la mort to “a very English set of characters.” Barnes concludes that while The Good Soldier is “much less of a social novel” than Maupassant’s, it is “in terms of emotional heat even Frencher than Fort comme la mort.” Whereas Maupassant “turns up the burners only towards the end of his novel,” Ford goes all in, raising the stakes of “madness and terror,” audaciously starting “at the highest emotional pitch” and only continuing to elevate it thereafter. The result, Barnes believes, is “Ford’s masterpiece,” noteworthy for its “immaculate use of an unreliable narrator, its sophisticated disguise of true narrative behind a false facade of apparent narrative, its self-reflectingness, its deep duality about human motive, intention and experience, and its sheer boldness as a project.” It is a novel which “constantly asks how to tell a story, which pretends to fail at narrative while richly succeeding.” Yet for all its qualities, The Good Soldier and also Ford himself was derided by his contemporaries. Barnes proposes why: He presents no usefully crisp literary profile; he wrote far too much, and in too many genres; he fails to fit easily into university courses. He seems to fall down a hole between late Victorianism and modernism. He also presented himself as an elderly party fading out before this new generation which was probably a bad tactical move. It might be a bit much (and I dare say a little rude) to venture that like Ford, Barnes as a novelist remains under-appreciated, or at least under-read, when compared to his contemporaries. But it bears mentioning because, due to the personal nature of the format, Barnes’s examinations of these authors can’t help but say a little something about the essayist. In both Kipling and Ford, he strives to unearth the ties and sentiments which he holds most dear, which most impact upon his novels, those of an Anglo inexorably bound to France. Through the Window confirms not only this love of England and of France, but of language and literature as well.
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