Lessons in mourning and in being successful


Lessons in mourning and in being successful

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH test-drove a handful of books to be our guiding light in the reading jungle.


THERE are two life processes that one tackles with varying degrees of success. The first is the immediate aftermath of the birth of your first child, and the other is the days, months and often years of mourning that follow the passing of a close loved one.

For both, you need common sense and intuition. Common sense can be supplemented with book knowledge and the testimony of people who have been through it. Especially when it comes to parenting.

Intuition is a different beast. You can listen to the baby, try to decipher the signs, and ultimately you have to heed your gut feeling. When you are in the midst of mourning, gut feeling doesn't always seem to be enough. No one can teach you how to mourn.

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Jane L Rosen addresses this issue in On Fire Island. The novel is narrated by Julia, who died of cancer before she could bring her and Ben's firstborn into the world. Ben, a former sports journalist who has transitioned to writing books, immediately moves to Fire Island, just south of Long Island in New York, to sit shiva after Julia's death.

Rosen sends Julia along — she is the narrator, the deceased who gets the chance to see how she influenced others' lives. Especially Ben's. With such a narrator, one can expect quite a bit of humour. One unforgettable joke comes from the LGBTQ+ bingo night, where the person calling out the numbers gleefully goes by the nickname Urethra Franklin.

But it's not a comedic novel. Anyone who has mourned someone will recognise the immense emotional currents in Ben's life. Julia still loves him, even in her death, and Ben, well, she only realises now how much he loved her. The tragedy unfolds and only concludes two years later when Ben visits the island again and feels his spirit fill with the fresh sea air, the weight of mourning gone.

If Rosen's goal was to show how we keep the departed in our lives, she succeeded. It's not an easy book to read, even though the style is light and easygoing. It's a novel that tests your ability to empathise. It's one of those books I'll read again, even though I don't really want to explain to people why.

On Fire Island by Jane L Rosen was published by Penguin and costs R452 at Exclusive Books.

I usually save new Stephen Kings for early January when the year is slowly getting under way. But us King fanatics know he's falling in love with Holly Gibney, whom he introduced in Mr Mercedes, gave more spotlight to in The Outsider, and let shine in If It Bleeds. That's why I read Holly immediately when it became available.

I never thought a King could be boring, but this time he struggles. The story and Holly eventually get going. King could have better used the Harris couple, who come into Holly's crosshairs after a great disturbance and embody absolute malice. But by the time we look into their eyes and see Satan, we're already weary. We'll have to wait for Holly's next case to see if King's affection for her grows.

Holly by Stephen King was published by Hodder & Stoughton and costs R430 at Exclusive Books.

Well yes, I've also had that fantasy. The one of just leaving everything behind and moving somewhere where nobody knows me. The “running away from your problems" fantasy. Louise Doughty wraps this delightful novel around that fantasy.

Heather, a British office worker, acts on this impulse. Doughty is such a darn good writer; you become so focused on Heather's immediate turmoil that you don't notice the vagueness around her. Until Doughty starts to bring things into sharp focus and you realise Heather's life is genuinely in danger. Take note of Doughty. You're going to hear a lot more from her.

A Bird in Winter by Louise Doughty was published by Faber & Faber and costs R399 at Exclusive Books.

It's easy for Arnie, at the ripe old age of 75 and with many millions of dollars in his account, to come and tell us how to do useful things and be successful in life. If you've just lost your home and livelihood because you no longer have an income to cover the monthly payments, you're not going to grab his book to see how you can change your life.

This book, to be frank, is intended for those who are in a profession and want to see if Schwarzenegger's tips can lead them on a new path to wealth and happiness. I didn't get very far with it because it's not really useful for retirees. The few chapters I did read were inspiring. In old Arnie's way.

Be Useful by Arnold Schwarzenegger was published by Penguin and costs R380 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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