This is a sad book. But this is also a very beautiful book. It is about the death of a child, every parent’s worst nightmare. Don’t let that put you off, though, unless you really can’t cope with that subject. I know one of my sisters can’t cope with sad films; she just won’t watch them, whereas I will watch and cry cathartically.
This book is similar in that my heart ached while I read it, but the beauty of the writing and the believability of the main character made me want to read it. I didn’t cry while reading it, although I could have.
The main character is Abbe Deighton, a South African by birth, but now living in Hawaii and married to a minister, Greg. Two things I liked here already – that part of the book is set in South Africa, and then that Abbe is married to a minister but doesn’t really like church. Both of those made her more interesting to me.
Her and her husband’s lives are completely changed in the instant that a car hits Cleo, their three-year-old daughter, and she dies. Abbe disintegrates with grief; she clings to her child in the mortuary and screams like a wounded lioness to anyone who wants to take her away. She urges Cleo to wake up until Abbe realises, “…she has gone to the burial grounds of drowned boys and crucified Lords.”
In her fog of grief, Abbe distances herself from her husband, Greg. Slowly we discover, though, that their marriage hadn’t been perfect before Cleo’s death, as Abbe had had a near affair with an Italian man in her office. Greg, too, immerses himself in his pastoral work, neglecting Abbe.
With her job as a mother taken away from her so quickly, she goes back into her past and we are exposed to her growing up with an awful abusive father and timid mother who drifts towards alcoholism in her sadness. Her brother, now a famous poet in America, is forced out the family home by their father for writing ‘commie’ poems during apartheid South Africa.
In Hawaii now, after Cleo’s death, Abbe grieves so that she can barely leave the house and floats around in a bubble of grief. She refuses to speak to her friend, Theresa, with whom Cleo was when she got run over. She hates the man whose car ran into Cleo. Slowly, with help from her friend Jenny (the only person she allows into her life), she starts venturing out again.
Now and then, on Greg’s insistence, she tries going to church but encounters the do-gooders with “their sympathies tucked up like handbags”. Abbe cannot stand their falseness as they talk about her “precious angel”. She afterwards thinks to herself that she wants nothing more to do with their God, “the Stingy Bastard God, who gives life and then snatches it back.”
Her and Greg’s marriage teeters along through their private sadnesses until the day that Abbe doesn’t turn up at the service to scatter Cleo’s ashes. She had thought it would be a private ceremony, but discovers that the church ladies are preparing the service and a tea-party afterwards. In her horror at the thought of it, on the morning, she grabs Cleo’s ashes and hikes up the mountain, scattering them at the top.
The selfish act is too much for Greg to bear; it is the final push that causes him to leave and take up a job in America. Soon after he has left, Abbe returns to South Africa for the sale of her grandmother’s farm, something which she and Rhiaan, her brother, decide to do despite not having wanted to earlier. And, so by going back, she has to face the ghosts of her past, confront the memories of her life with her parents and discover the truths of the tragic events that took place there.
Abbe is further confronted by death when she is tied up at gunpoint in the guest house in which she is staying, along with the owners. To cut a long story short, Abbe rescues them all by driving a bakkie into the robbers and killing one of them, for which she is proclaimed a hero. Yet, by running the robber over, she finds herself identifying with the man who killed Cleo and finds forgiveness within herself for him.
When Abbe realises that the sale of the farm will result in a rural school being closed and the land being developed, she decided to stay on the farm and carry on teaching the children. Before settling however, she returns to Hawaii, first of all to find out what Cleo’s last words were before she got run over (The mommies on the bus go sh-sh-sh) from Theresa. She also visits Mr Nguyen, the man who ran Cleo over, to give him her forgiveness, and to tell him to forgive himself.
I really liked Abbe, her cynicism, her grief, her rudeness and her bad moods. She isn’t cut out to be a minister’s wife at all and I found her funny, even through all her sadness.
I preferred the part of the book that was set in Hawaii than the part in South Africa, I think because I found that the story carried on a bit. I had a feeling that Isla Morely was trying to work out how to tie all the ends together and it does end up feeling a bit too neat. Greg wasn’t mentioned much at all during Abbe’s visit to South Africa, which was an oversight because I can’t believe that she didn’t wonder how he was doing.
I think it is Morely’s first book, so all I can say is ‘well done’, even if it went on a bit, because it is such a wonderfully sensitive book about an agonising subject.