Thursday, May 17, 2007

Good grief

I've just finished reading two very different books that deal with grief. Joan Didion's stage adaptation of her bestselling book The Year of Magical Thinking, is a good companion piece to the memoir that dealt mostly with her husband's sudden death. At the time she wrote the book, her daughter was also gravely ill; she later died shortly after the manuscript was finished. The play thus deals with the double tragedy and is all the more powerful for its stripped scale and form. You also can't help hearing the voice of Vanessa Redgrave in your head as you are reading. She's still appearing in New York in this production directed by David Hare, so if you are heading to the city for Book Expo America, you can book tickets here.
A very different take on grief is The Bone Sharps by Tim Bowling, which I first heard about as one of Susan's Dewey picks. This novel is published by Gaspereau Press whose books are always so beautifully crafted with lovely paper and bindings. The novel follows the lives of several interlocking characters. Charles Sternberg is a self-trained fossil enthusiast who is excavating the Badlands in Alberta looking for dinosaur bones. He's haunted by the guilt he feels over the death of his beloved daughter Maud who died while he was away on one of his expeditions. Lily, a young woman who reminds him of Maud, is helping him on his current dig in 1916 but is distracted by thoughts of Sternberg's assistant Scott who is fighting in the trenches. Decades later, she will return to the Badlands to perform an act of remembrance. And we also follow Scott, desperate to return to his search for ancient bones, but having to daily confront the grisly skeletons that are unearthed on the Western front. The novel is full of poetic passages and cleverly juxtaposes the personal grief and horror facing these characters with the almost historical acceptance and expansiveness of other types of extinction and slaughter. The end of the dinosaurs. The herds of buffalo senselessly killed for sport on the prairies. And of course the First World War. There are also many philosophical musings about the role of science and religion and whether they can both co-exist on an archeological dig or a futile battlefield. Beautifully written and thought-provoking.

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