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/

 

Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler

This subtle debut novel has a central theme of love and loss within relationships and it told from the point of view of two characters, Alice and Daniel.

ImageAlice – a wanderer, a backpacker – returns from Mongolia to spend time with her father who is dying of cancer. Her older sisters, Tilly and Cee, are also in the house, and instantly the sibling’s dynamics start up again – Tilly is sympathetic and warm towards Alice and bakes when stressed, while Cee – a compulsive list-maker – criticises and nags her. Alice has always sensed that their father has shared a secret with her sisters that she doesn’t know about, felt a twinge of exclusion, but also a sense of being protected from that secret. Their mother died when Alice was young, when picking Alice up from her ballet lessons, an event about which Alice has carried guilt for many years. She still yearns for her ex-boyfriend with whom she broke up because he wouldn’t tell his parents about her (I want Kal. I want him to massage the soles of my feet and paint my nails.)

ImageDaniel is a homeless man, a vagrant who searches London for the daughter he has never met, the result of a year-long affair with a married woman. A synaesthete, he sees colours in letters and numbers (‘the letter A is the colour of glacier water…L is gold…I is magenta pink) and creates artistic ‘messages’ out of discarded junk which he leaves on street corners and fences for his daughter. Every year he makes a birthday card for her and posts it, fantasising that she’ll receive it (‘I write your name – I have that at least – but I don’t have an address).

Both characters are compulsive list-makers, always of ten items – this device allows for information to be conveyed to the reader in a quick, easy way, although I sometimes felt it disrupted the flow of the narrative. 

The outcome is fairly obvious, but the book never descends into sentimentality and concludes in an open-ended fashion that remains open to interpretation by the reader. 

A friend of mine found the book disappointing after the reviews she had read about it, but I enjoyed it. It is written with pathos and humour and I sympathised with both characters throughout the book.