 Rachel Cooke’s graphic novel of the month

Writ­ing about grief is hard and this ac­count of be­reave­ment doesn’t get close enough to the heart, writes Rachel Cooke

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda -

Ev­ery­day Mad­ness Lisa Ap­pig­nanesi

4th Es­tate, £16.99, pp272

In 2015, the writer Lisa Ap­pig­nanesi lost her part­ner of more than 30 years; he had been suf­fer­ing from can­cer, and in Novem­ber of that year, he died. Like all deaths of this kind, his was both ex­pected and un­ex­pected, and for his widow it brought all the usual tor­ments of be­reave­ment: the “ev­ery­day mad­ness” of her ti­tle. She was sad, and she was an­gry; she imag­ined strange things; some­times, she felt she wanted to die her­self. The word be­reave­ment is linked et­y­mo­log­i­cally to the old Ger­manic “reave” – to plun­der – and wan­der­ing the fam­ily home, this was pre­cisely what she felt: her life had been ran­sacked. So much was now ir­re­triev­able.

This book, she notes in an in­tro­duc­tion, is an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of a state that floats some­where be­tween di­ag­nosed men­tal ill­ness and daily life; she is her sur­vey’s prin­ci­pal case, but she’s in­ter­ested, too, in the “his­tor­i­cal mo­ment” whose anger and loss, she in­sists, can “be un­der­stood as shar­ing a set of emo­tions” with her own. Ev­ery­day Mad­ness di­vides, then, into three. The first sec­tion fo­cuses on the death of her hus­band, the his­to­rian John Forrester. The sec­ond touches on the EU ref­er­en­dum, so­cial me­dia and pub­lic rage. The third has to do with con­so­la­tion, which she finds in the form of her “end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing” first grand­son.

Grief mem­oirs are to a de­gree re­view-proof. One wants to be kind. But the truth is that very few reach the heart like an ar­row. Writ­ing about grief is in­or­di­nately dif­fi­cult; only the most ex­cep­tional writ­ers are able to do so in such a way that it seems at once fa­mil­iar and un­canny. An ad­di­tional dan­ger lies in the fact – those who have ex­pe­ri­enced loss will know what I’m talk­ing about – that no one wants to spend too much time with the be­reaved, un­less they’re go­ing through the same thing them­selves. Here is fear and claus­tro­pho­bia; here is an un­remit­ting mis­ery that can feel con­ta­gious. The writer some­how has to give us the worst of it, with­out scar­ing us off.

Ap­pig­nanesi’s book fails by tak­ing the reader close to her grief, with all the air­less­ness that im­plies, and yet not close enough; some­thing about her slippy, in­ex­act prose bred in me not un­der­stand­ing, but a feel­ing of dis­tance. The sec­tion on Brexit – it cli­maxes with some­one be­ing vile to her, the daugh­ter of im­mi­grants, in a London mar­ket – is a rhetor­i­cal leap too far; her rage at her part­ner’s loss might well be mir­rored by what she sees out in the world, but the two are not con­se­quent on one an­other, or even con­nected (much of her anger is born of the fact that her hus­band had an af­fair be­fore he died, his fi­nal aban­don­ment

– the one brought about by his death – reignit­ing the feel­ings she ex­pe­ri­enced when he first left her). In the fi­nal sec­tion, she moves to­wards the light, and you’re pleased for her. But re­ally, who doesn’t adore their grand­chil­dren? I won­dered at the in­dul­gence of her editor here.

Ap­pig­nanesi, like her late hus­band, has a spe­cial in­ter­est in psy­cho­anal­y­sis. The book is stud­ded with bits of undi­gested Freud, La­can and Klein. She also de­scribes her dreams. Some read­ers may find this in­ter­est­ing, if not wholly en­light­en­ing. But I wanted more of her. Not the her that strains for apho­ris­tic ef­fect – “the hu­man con­di­tion doesn’t re­ally help all that much when one is be­ing all too hu­man” is a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple – but the one that is able to ac­knowl­edge that the shared bur­den of ill­ness has an ef­fect on the way a fam­ily may ex­pe­ri­ence be­reave­ment; that the un­spo­ken wish (please die now) that in­hab­its the sick­room brings with it, once the worst has hap­pened, its own pun­ish­ment; that the dy­ing of­ten want to be let well alone, a de­sire those who love them ex­pe­ri­ence as cru­elty, even ruth­less­ness. I recog­nised these things, and wanted her to think more deeply about them. The rest just felt to me like so much noise.

To or­der Ev­ery­day Mad­ness for £12.74 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846

Lisa Ap­pig­nanesi in­ves­ti­gates ‘a state that floats be­tween di­ag­nosed men­tal ill­ness and daily life’.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.