'...I suddenly wake with a small piece of coal burning in my stomach, and another burning in my soul.'
In my continued and ongoing quest for books wherein no one dies, picking up The Widow's Tale by Mick Jackson wasn't going to help one iota and it is now several weeks since I turned the final page so heaven help me as I revisit now.But perhaps the test of a truly good read is that stickability factor.
As I re-open it do I sense again the mood that I was left with as I finished it?
Has the plot stayed with me?
Are the characters still real in my mind?
Do my truncated and shorthand notes make any sense whatsoever?
Have I got over the fact that I read it in proof copy and the dates at the head of the chapters were yet to be added which had me struggling slightly with the timescale...had there been a week or a month between this chapter and that?
I could easily have asked for a finished copy but I didn't because that lack proved to be beneficial, it turned me into a much more careful reader as I searched for those clues.
In fact there isn't much of a plot here, man has died woman grieves through series of events where man's absence is notable.
A very fiesty down-to-earth first person narrative voice and to the concern of her friends an unnamed (I think) widow has fled her London home for the isolated coast of Norfolk following the sudden death of her husband John. Perhaps one too many casseroles left on the doorstep, too much the centre of attention, but whatever it is some time and space is required to assimilate what feels like madness, but is readily recognised as the work of mourning.
'...on the inside it's non-stop barking. In fact I'm fairly howling at the moon.'
This a fictional grief observed in the tradition of those real ones so perfectly accounted by the likes of C.S.Lewis and then Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking.
Suddenly the widow becomes an expert on the subject with opinions on all manner of things previously of little personal interest, left unconsidered until now when suddenly all things grief-related seem relevant...like the proliferation of road-side shrines
'Call me old-fashioned, but, personally, I think floral tributes should be confined to the graveyard. Or the homes of the mourners. I think the front room curtains should be drawn according to custom, to signify loss, but also a desire for privacy. This is my grief. And my pain is not your pain. Go and get some pain of your own.'
I was impressed with several things. Mick Jackson's ability to
write from a female perspective, albeit a fairly robust one and get it
right. Then the very reader-friendly bite-sized chapters, most barely three or four pages long.
I wonder how an author feels about these?
Are they more or less difficult to achieve?
Not only do I like this format occasionally for ease of reading...more places to stop easily, draw a line and come back to later, but in this instance I also felt they perfectly reflected the inability of the grief-stricken mind to hold a thought or focus for any length of time, that butterfly-like concentration somehow imposed on the reader too.
The Widow's Tale is a personal hymn to grief, as the widow rents a cottage far from friends and home and battles her way through the demons of her loss as she contemplates a life now to be flown solo. As if it's somehow best to do these things unseen, like learning to ride a bike where no one can watch you fall off and say I told you so, or come up with helpful advice for when you get back on.
'My future it seems is frighteningly open to interpretation. On a bad day it is a bleak and empty desert stretching towards the distant horizon. On a good day it's the same desert with a few cacti along the way. Recently a friend suggested I might get involved in the 'voluntary services', as if I were some old neddy that should be put out to pasture....with the greatest respect I would rather chew off my own arm.'
There is a car to be bought, a meal to be taken alone, the search for a rationale for what has happened and alongside this all the imperfections and infidelities of the past shared life are there to be considered.
Anyone who works with the bereaved will know of the well-catalogued seven stages of the grieving process, useful only as reassurance in my experience because no one proceeds through them in an particular order or even through them all. It's more often like a whirlpool combination of several at any one time and Mick Jackson has captured that unpredictability here perfectly.
'...who knows if such a ravaged landscape ever really recovers. If I've
grasped anything over the last few months it's that grief...or
mourning...or whatever you want to call it, is not a continuum. Is not
an arrow on a successful company's sales chart, rising inexorably towards
the north-east. You don't wake up each day feeling a tiny bit better
than the day before...'
This is no glorification of the deceased either, John rightly remains a shadowy, relatively unknown figure, this is a book about that essential selfishness of grief about what happens to the 'me' in all this. There is self-reproach, loathing, fallibility and imperfection but above all honesty as the unwanted freedom of being single is occasionally relished, and all in a narrative voice that I constantly warmed to. The widow tells it like it is, by turns blackly humorous at others melancholy, frequently angry, puzzled and bewildered but with an astute and reflective eye that meant for all its potential to be an utterly miserable book this thankfully never happens.
A book I recommend frequently and which I've written about here before, Don't Let Them Tell You How to Grieve by Gina Claye always says it gently and with huge sensitivity and sums up Mick Jackson's excellent novel too.
...And when it all breaks
and the weight of my world
forces me to my knees,
give me courage
to grit my teeth,
haul myself up,
and on the bare
let me learn to dance.