The Nix by Nathan Hill

This book was an assault on the senses, a whirlwind tour of modern-day America, warts and all – social media, social narcissism, radical politics, political correctness, gaming addiction, friendship, loneliness, childhood grief, mother-issues, absent fathers, all thrown together in one huge debut novel. It was a roller-coaster of a read, switching rapidly between characters and time periods, at once serious and then very funny, and it is very, very worth reading.

the nix cover

Samuel Andreson-Anderson is a literature professor in his mid-30s, stressed by his life and work, obsessed with online gaming (in particular, a game called ‘World of Elfquest’) and unaware of the viral sensation of the moment: a middle-aged woman pelting a presidential-candidate politician (Governor Packer) with stones. When he receives a call from her lawyer, he finds out that the “Packer-Attacker’ is none other than his mother. The lawyer is phoning to ask Samuel to write a letter attesting to her good character – a problem for Samuel in that his mother walked out when he was 11 and he hasn’t seen her since.

Samuel had been a one-book wonder in his early 20s, had been given a handsome advance by his publishers and had never produced another word. In lieu of having to pay back the advance, Samuel suggests he write an expose on his mother instead, and this is how Samuel reunites with his mother and learns the story of her life, particularly her student protest days. In learning about her, we also learn about Samuel growing up, his friendships and first love, so well captured by Hill.

Yet … this small synopsis reveals very little about the depth and breadth of this book. A chaos of other characters exists within it, all vying for attention, some capturing it more than others. I liked Pwnage, the online gamer who games himself nearly to death, playing a plethora of different avatars in World of Elfquest; I loathed but had to laugh at Laura, Samuel’s student who was caught plagiarising a paper and mounts a defence full of buzzwords – Samuel’s accusation, for example, triggered negative feelings of stress and vulnerability in her, and she hints at sexual abuse. As is symptomatic of so many politically-correct administrations now,  Laura ends up graduating cum laude and Samuel gets fired.

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This book is a vast, Big Novel and a biting satire of life in America. Yes, it’s long and perhaps it should have been tightened up, but I enjoyed it and hope there’s more to come from Hill. Seeing that he looks young enough to be my son and, with the success of this, his first novel, I’m sure there will be.

 

 

 

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Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr, the author of the best-seller All The Light We Cannot See, received notification that he had won a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome when his new-born twins were only 12 hours old. Six months later, he, his wife and the twins boarded a plane in their home town, Boise, Idaho, and flew to Rome to live for a year.

book cover four seasons

This book accounts their year in Rome, divided into the four  seasons, starting with fall. With each season, Doerr details their new life, the challenges they face living in a foreign city where they can’t speak the language, his failed attempts at writing a novel, the relentless demands of being a new parent; all encapsulated by his beautiful paean to Rome.  It is a mix of travelogue, parenting guide, literary criticism, writing guide, with a dose of self-deprecating humour thrown into the mix.

The demands of parenting twins, coupled with insomnia, leaves Doerr so exhausted most of the time that writing becomes a near impossibility, and so he turns to Pliny – “How can fiction compete with this guy?” he says; and he turns his attention to the new city in which he lives. “And now there’s Rome, beginning to seep into everything, flooding my notebooks: the slumbering palaces, the hallucinatory light.” He describes the city in exquisite detail: the residents, the food, the architecture, the history, and often nature within the city; the way the light falls, the colour of the sky, the strength of wind, the rain, the snow. (And how he wishes to see snow fall through the dome of the Pantheon; something he never gets to do.)

Parthenon

He weaves such intricacy into his observations that every sentence about Rome made me feel as though I were walking through it with him – or wish that I were walking with him. He is particularly good at describing the smallest human interactions – whether it be a couple walking past him, a shop keeper, a child holding her father’s hand – and, in doing so, creates an intimate impression of this vast city.

Pope John Paul dies in that same year and Doerr gives us an an account of the millions of pilgrims who flooded the city to attend to the funeral, focusing on the individuals, rather than the pomp and ceremony of the funeral itself. “It’s as if I’ve wandered into the biggest tailgate party in history, three days too long, the enthusiasm faded to a raw-throated, glassy fatigue-some people are crying; many are asleep. Volunteers hand out liters of water. A woman cradles a full grown German Shepherd. A man snores.”

Then there are the accounts of parenting, which are so funny and touching and so full of love for his boys, Owen and Henry, who seem never to sleep. He takes us through their developmental steps: crawling, teething, walking, all against the backdrop of Rome. Wherever they take the twins, people stop to talk to them, admiring the little boys.

“Half a dozen Romans stops me: ‘They are twins?” “How many years do they have?” “where did you buy that stroller?” Half my Italian vocabulary has to do with baby gear.” 

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Doerr recounts he and his wife having to hire a babysitter and go through the agony of leaving their babies with a stranger; his twins start teething and are monstrous; the whole family gets colds and Owen’s is so bad they have to call out a paediatrician; Doerr’s wife collapses and has to go to hospital, where they find it is nigh impossible to communicate without being able to speak Italian; he tells us their lives in small, humorous and very poignant detail.

Doerr walks through the city every day, sometimes with the twins, sometimes by himself and the whole time he observes Rome and how Romans live.

Every time I turn around here, I witness a miracle: wisteria pours up walls; slices of sky show through the high arches of a bell tower … a church floor looks as soft as flesh; the skin from a ball of mozzarella cheese tastes rich enough to change my life.”

And so after a year in Rome, it is time for him and his family to go home.

I know nothing. I lived in Rome four seasons. I never made it through the gates between myself and the Italians. I cannot claim to have become, in even the smallest manner, Roman. And yet I can’t stop myself: a pen, a notebook, the urge to circumscribe experience.

He has circumscribed his year in Rome wonderfully, with nearly every sentence evoking an image of the eternal city; an account that has made me wish to get back to Rome again.

Vue-of-Rome

 

 

 

Days without End by Sebastian Barry

I never thought I would like a book about army life, about brutal battles and vivid descriptions of the atrocities of war, but this book was one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Please don’t be put off by my first sentence; this book is worth reading for the quality of Barry’s writing alone, as well as the extraordinary story that he tells, that of two gay men in the US army in the 1850s and into the American Civil War.

Days without end

The book is narrated by Thomas McNulty, an Irishman who fled to America aged 13 after his family had literally starved to death in Ireland. Thomas talks to us throughout this novel in the conversational tone of one without much education, but with a wisdom of having lived a hard life. He is matter-of-fact, without self-pity. He said that when he arrived in America with others on a ship, “The point is, we were nothing … We were a plague. We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Thomas left the horrors of a starving Ireland but came to the New World to encounter a harsh reality of expansionism in which indigenous people were being slaughtered.

Existing on virtually no food and living in rags, Thomas met a boy called John Cole, who was equally hungry and ragged. A friendship starts and almost right away, Thomas “felt like a human being again“. The boys searched for work and ended up in a mining town, working as dancers dressed up in women’s clothing to entertain the miners. There is nothing sexual about this; they danced for the miners:

Maybe we were like memories of elsewhere. Maybe we were the girls of their youth, the girls they had first loved. Man, we was so clean and nice, I wished I could of met myself.”

But the boys grew into men and could no longer pass for pretty dancing girls, and so at 17 joined the army, a hard life but one that gave them food, clothes and a horse each. Most of the fighting was against Native Americans (Indians), a horrific ethnic cleansing with brutal, physical battles, but Thomas plainly explains his and John’s behaviour:

“…. I don’t think anything can be properly understood. How we were able to see slaughter without flinching. Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with. We knew what to do with nothing, we were at home there.

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Much of the novel is about the army, the horrendous hardships the soldiers go through, not only with the fighting but also the hostile countryside and weather conditions. On reading about this life, I wondered how on earth anyone ever survived it, but Thomas and John did, and throughout the novel, the story of their love is woven, a beautifully quiet and tender love story that seems at odds with the setting.

Barry’s handling of this gay relationship is so masterfully accomplished that it moves through the story without appearing fantastical, for it is almost unreal – two men in love in an overtly masculine military context where lives don’t count for anything. I didn’t cotton on to the gay aspect of the relationship until, early on in the book, in between descriptions of the army and base camp, Barry throws in the sentence:

And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.

Barry challenges the readers with questions of identity as these men are gay, yet they remain loyal to their army compatriots. They are tender with each other, yet they kill when necessary. Barry stretches us even further when John and Thomas marry secretly and, when John leaves the army and Thomas runs away, Thomas lives for a while as Thomasina, finally dressing in women’s clothing as he had always wished to. He is feminine, yet remains masculine in his attitude to war and the army to which he has to return. And more for the reader to ingest – John adopts a Sioux girl after a raid on an Indian camp in which all the adults were slaughtered, and so the three of them live as a family for a while, happily. It all sounds strange, but Barry makes it come alive and treats the subject in a delicate and open-hearted manner.

This book was inspired in part by Barry’s son, Toby, who came out a couple of years before the book was written. In an interview with The Guardian, Barry said: From that moment on we (his son and Barry) entered into this extraordinary period where he was instructing me in the magic of gay life.” 

Barry listened and absorbed everything his son told him about gay love, cross-dressing and wove it into his novel:

“I was very impressed by the subtlety, the delicacy and the intricacy of the love between Toby and his boyfriend. People talk about tolerance, but it’s not really about tolerance. It should also be about emulation and reverence and learning from.” 

This novel can be read on many levels – a story about war, a description of life in the US army in the mid-19th century, a love story. It is a book about identity, patriotism, and friendship; fear and fervour, ugliness and strange beauty; it is bitter-sweet. It is a book written with such beautiful sentences that a dreamlike quality is evoked even in the most awful scenes; I found myself going back and re-reading battle scenes, because of the imagery that Barry uses; I found myself reading too quickly, compelled to find out what happens to Thomas and John, and I found myself almost unbearably moved by the love they had for each other.

I thought Barry’s books were good before this one, but now I believe him to be a truly great writer. I will read this book again and read it more slowly next time.

Barry

Reference:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/01/sebastian-barry-costa-book-award-2017-days-without-end-interview-gay-son

 

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Nutshell must have the most curious narrator I’ve come across in many years: a nine-month old foetus, pompous and opinionated, yet strangely beguiling. And surely a unique opening sentence:

So here I am, lying upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.

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Told from his point of view in the first person, the story line pivots around the foetus being privy to a forbidden relationship and a dastardly plan the couple has devised.

I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, I make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.

A few pages into the book, I wondered how McEwan was going to get away with writing about a foetus who is so knowledgeable about the world and its affairs, but he rather glibly pulls it off by having the unborn baby listen when his mother tunes into the radio, or when she listens to podcasts and audio books, or plays classical music. He learns about good wine when his mother drinks (which she does fairly often) and pontificates in a snobby way about the merits of a good burgundy or Sancerre. He knows contemporary politics, and surmises things he has not seen, such as colours and lightning.

Thus the foetus talks to us in an adult voice, as a reluctant observer to the plot that is unfolding within earshot and about which he can do nothing to prevent.

The plot is a familiar one to those who know Hamlet, and the epigraph is a quote from Hamlet that gives the novel its title. The mother, Trudy, has kicked her husband, John, a gormless poet, out of the house (John’s family home), even though she is pregnant with his child. She is now  in a relationship with Claude, John’s banal brother, described by the narrator as thus:

This is Claude as in property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing. He enjoys a thought, speaks it aloud, then later has it again, and – why not? – says it again. 

The narrator listens to Trudy and Claude plot against his father, for whom he has developed a tenderness, and whom he is unable to warn. John still visits Trudy at his house, trying to woo her back in a meek manner, oblivious to the plan being devised against him. The narrator, in his distress, mentally pens a letter to his father, finishing it with:

Don’t come down the stairs. Call a carefree goodbye and go. Or if you must come down, decline the fruit drink, stay only long enough to say your farewells. I’ll explain later. Until then, I remain your obedient son … 

The book ends with the narrator being born at home, Trudy crying, Claude panicking in disgust, too late to call an ambulance. The birth is described fantastically,  the narrator describing his agonising journey into the world:

I travel a section where I know a portion of my uncle has passed too often the other way. I’m not troubled. What was in his day a vagina, is now proudly a birth canal, my Panama … not casual cock can compete. For a stretch, I’m deaf, dumb and blind, it hurts everywhere. But it pains my screaming mother more as she renders the sacrifice all mothers make for their big-headed, loud-mouthed infants.

What I enjoy about McEwan is that no book he writes is like another; the story lines differ and so each new book of his is a new adventure. I had a sense throughout this book that McEwan had fun writing it and enjoyed creating this unusual, sometimes irritating, often endearing, narrator. His prose is as smooth as ever and he has retold a classic tale in the most masterful, imaginative manner.

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The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls shimmers with a dream-like tautness in both its writing and its plot, and I found myself pulled through the book by both, almost unable to stop reading. Cline is young, and this is her first book, but she writes with the aplomb of an experienced writer; her sentences are imbued with a sense of sweet and sour, of pushing you up and pulling you down, of freshness and of dread.

the-girls

The beauty of the prose aside, Cline writes about teenage girls so well that I was submerged within the story, within my memories of being a teenager, desperate to impress and to fit in. I might have been appalled by some of Evie’s behaviour (the main character), but I always understood why she was driven to do what she did.

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Emma Cline

Written in the light of the Charles Manson murders, the story centres around Evie Boyd, a fifteen-year-old girl living in California in 1969. Her parents are recently divorced and self-focused. Evie’s life is small and limited; she spends every afternoon hanging out with her best friend, Connie, filling her life with those particular inanities that come with being a teenager:

Every day after school, we’d click seamlessly into the familiar track of the afternoon. Waste hours at some industrious task: following Vidal Sassoon’s sugggestions for raw egg smoothies to strengthen hair or picking at blackheads with the tip of a sterilized sewing needle…We licked batteries to feel a metallic jolt on the tongue, rumored to be one-eighteenth of an orgasm.

It is with these sort of details that Cline so evokes the agonies of being a teenager, when she describes how Evie tries to be noticed in the way she dresses, how she drinks and smokes to fit in older kids, how she creeps into Connie’s brother’s bed at night; but how she also tries for parts of her not to be noticed, such as covering her pimples with thick base and standing with her stomach pulled in.

With these deep feelings of insecurity and boredom filling her life, when Evie one day spots ‘the girls’, she is instantly drawn to them, for being so totally different from anything in her little world, especially the prettiest one, the black-haired girl: There was a suggestion of otherworldliness hovering around her, a dirty smock dress barely covering her ass … They (the girls) were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time, and a ripple of awareness followed them through the park.

After longing to enter into the girls’ world and obsessing over Suzanne with the black hair, Evie finally gets herself invited to the ranch,  down a long dirt track and deep into the hills outside town. Here a group – mainly women and a few feral children – lives under the thrall of Russell, whose name Evie hears mentioned with reverence before she meets him, and whose focus dissolves her loneliness by making her feel special at last, giving her the attention she’s needed all her teenage years.

Even later, even knowing the things I knew, it was impossible, that first night, to see beyond the immediate. Russell’s buckskin shirt, smelling of flesh and rot and soft as velvet. Suzanne’s smile blooming in me like a firework, losing its colored smoke, its pretty, drifting cinders.

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Charles Manson

Suzanne and Russell’s attention, and the inclusiveness of the group on the ranch,  fills that emotional vacuum within Evie, while also giving her an opportunity to exact revenge her mother’s neglect and ignorance of the life Evie is now living.

Cline’s story is shocking within itself, (yet totally believable looking back at the Manson  cult), but because Cline describes with such deep understanding Evie’s teenage years, I could believe – with horror – the sacrifices Evie was willing to take. On finishing the novel, I was filled with admiration for the skill with which Cline has written this book. I hope there are many more to come from her.

Four books I’ve recently enjoyed

Short  reviews of  books I have recently read and really enjoyed.

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My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: this is a novel I wish I had written because it is so masterful despite its brevity and simple setting. I’ve enjoyed all of Elizabeth’s Strout’s novels, starting with Olive Kitteridge (because I had watched the series, which is damn fine in itself with Frances McDormand playing grumpy Olive so well), then working backwards and ending up with her latest, Lucy Barton. There is no doubt that Lucy Barton is Strout’s finest, with the quality of writing highlighting her ability to capture the essence of a fraught relationship in such a short novel.

Lucy Barton is in hospital recuperating from a mysterious disease. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for years, comes to visit her and over five days stays at Lucy’s bedside virtually all the time, forcing the two of them to talk. They gossip about people in Lucy’s hometown, they reminisce about events that happened when Lucy grew up; the conversation seems light yet the shadow of their complicated relationship hovers in the background. They avoid subjects that might hurt them and that aren’t talked about in their family; they don’t talk about Lucy’s loneliness, or her unhappy childhood; they don’t mention the poverty and the bullying.

What lies beneath every conversation and every scene in the book, however, is love: the complicated, fierce love Lucy has for her mother  despite what has happened in her past, and the primal love for a child that her mother can’t deny.

“It was the sound of my mother’s voice I most wanted; what she said didn’t matter … I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you. I feel that people may not understand: It was all right.”

This is a beautiful novel, with finely-tuned, sparse prose that never turns over-emotional or florid, an exquisite book from an author at the top of her game.

 

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This Must be the Place by Maggie O’ Farrell: I believe this is Maggie O’ Farrell’s best novel yet. I have always enjoyed her books, but she has notched up a level in this book, portraying a complicated marriage from different viewpoints and with different techniques.

It is, at the bottom of it, the story of an American linguistic, Daniel Hoffman, who is married to a reclusive ex-film star, Claudette, and living in a remote part of rural Ireland. When Daniel hears of the death of a previous girlfriend, he is compelled to go back to America to find out the truth of this old relationship, and by doing so, disrupts every part of his life. The novel travels over continents and time, portraying a vast array of characters, but because of the deftness of O’ Farrell’s prose, never once was I confused or exasperated.

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Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave: While I don’t think this novel is nearly as masterful as the ones above, it is a fantastic read and I would recommend it to anyone looking for good love  story set in WWII. It is essentially about the relationship between four  main characters: there’s Mary who volunteers for the war effort, partly to shock her upper class family, partly to give some depth to her socialite life. She hopes to be made a headmistress, yet is assigned to be a teacher in a school for unwanted children: either disabled or mixed race. Hilda, Mary’s equally upper-class friend, also gets involved in the war effort, and becomes horribly disfigured through it.

Mary starts a relationship with Tom, an education administrator, however she is irresistibly drawn to Tom’s best friend, Alistair, when she meets him. Alistair, an art restorer, enlists and goes off to battle, for which he is barely prepared. The war creates a whole new  world for each of these characters and how they cope (or don’t cope) creates the background for the  interplay of their relationships.

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Cleave is particularly good at depicting the social structure of Britain at the time of the war, and he uses the class system as a backdrop for highlighting the racism and snobbishness of society. He also excels at describing the war, depicting London during the blitz and battles in Malta so well that the horrors of it came alive, but at the same time manages to bring humour into some of the scenes. Despite the odd cliche and the tendency to sentimentality, he has written a wonderful contemporary love story set in historical times.

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Penguin Lessons: What I learned from a Remarkable Bird by Tom Michell: sometimes you just need a book to cheer you up and restore your faith in humanity again. This is one such book; it’s a memoir written by a young Englishman who goes to teach in Argentina and on the way finds a tar-soaked Magellan penguin on a beach in Uruguay. Deciding to try and save its life, he takes it back to his rented flat and manages to clean it. When he returns it to the beach and puts it in the sea, however, it resolutely follows him and will not leave him however hard he tries to escape it, and so Tom decides to smuggle it over the border and take it with him to the private boys’ school in Argentina. The penguin, now named Juan Salvador, takes pride of place in the school and is doted upon by the boys and staff. The book is illustrated with sketches of the penguin, although justice was not done to them by my Kindle. It is an utterly delightful, funny, poignant, heart-warming story about how an animal (even a penguin) can have a profound effect on people’s lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Oh, this is the most beautiful memoir; a love story, a love letter, by a woman about a man she loved for 16 years. I devoured this book, awed by the joyous love that Elizabeth Alexander held for her husband who dropped dead unexpectedly of a heart attack. While reading it, I wondered at her skill of writing about deeply personal grief in such an accessible, tender manner, and the honesty with which she portrayed the difficulties of trying to find meaning in her new world without him. It was also heart-warming to read a book about a real love, in a time when the world is full of divorce and bitterness.

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Elizabeth Alexander is an award-winning poet (probably best known for writing and reading the poem, Praise Song for the Day, at Obama’s inauguration), who presently is a professor of poetry at Yale University. She had never written a book of prose before this one and certainly never planned to write a memoir – ‘my own sense of privacy was too powerful’ –  but when she sat down and started to write, she found she couldn’t stop.

Alexander tells the story of her and her husband’s 16-year relationship from beginning to end, jumping backwards and forwards, uncovering the layers of affection from its rapturous beginning to its tragic end. She met Ficre Ghebreyesus  (FEE-kray Geb-reh-YESS-oos) in New Haven in 1996 – ‘Our love began in an instant and progressed inevitably’ – and soon they married and had two sons.

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Ficre Ghebreyesus

Ficre was born in East Africa in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, in the middle of the 30-year-long war with Ethiopia for independence. His parents had to face down soldiers who barged into their house, threatening them with death. Ficre’s eldest brother died while fighting as a ‘freedom fighter’, but when Ficre enlisted, his mother went to retrieve him from the front line, and arranged for him leave the country as a refugee. At 16, he left home and went Sudan, then Italy, then Germany and finally made America his home. Ficre was an artist and a chef and, as well as working on his art, he opened a well-known Eritrean restaurant in New Haven. His paintings are bright and colourful, deeply influenced by the Eritrean culture, and born out of the psychological trauma he experienced there (the book’s cover portrays one of his artworks).

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One of Ficre’s paintings

Alexander describes Ficre with such loving description throughout the book; for example:

His voice lilted across a pentatonic scale. “How are you?” D-sharp, C, G-sharp. There was chocolate in his voice, a depth, a bottom…In this still life I have forgotten to say, he was beautiful, and utterly without vanity.

And:

He shaved his head on account of his receding hairline, but surely no one ever looked more beautiful bald – brown like a chestnut, clear brown, like topaz or buckwheat honey.

In her writing, he comes across as a joyful, funny, kind man, with family all around America and back in Eritrea, into whose clan Alexander was gladly received. She embraced his Eritrean traditions and cooking with fervour, and much of the book covers the merging of their cultures, an experiment that happily worked. The glimpse into the Eritrean life, with its Italian and Ethiopian influences, gave another level of interest to the book.

Ficre died aged 50 while running on the treadmill in the basement of their house, soon after Alexander had come home from a reading. She tried CPR on him, but he died before getting to the hospital. She said:

“Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there.”

The memoir covers the depth of her grief at her sudden loss, her disbelief that Ficre could no longer be in her life. After his death, she dreamed of him constantly and often felt his presence; she and the children talked about him constantly, remembering small details. The first poem she wrote many months after his death is titled Family in 3/4 Time, which starts like this:

We are now a three-legged table/a family of three, once a family of four./We bring ourselves into new balance./The table wobbles, but does not fall.

The Light of the World is a memoir that portrays the depth of Alexander’s loss and grieving, and the ways in which she had to learn to be in the world without her husband, but most of all it is a beautiful tribute to a man deeply loved by those who knew him.

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Elizabeth, Ficre and their sons

http://www.ficre-ghebreyesus.com/about/