Some books make it into my memory bank. I can remember when I read each of these tomes and can recall the physical sensation of where I was and how I felt as I read. Always there is something, some character, some theme, or line that sticks with me, speaking to me directly, changing my life in a small way. When I read a book like this I think, yes, this is why I became a writer. Yes, reading books changes lives.
The latest novel to take up space in my overstuffed 42-year-old brain is The World Without You by Joshua Henkin. I read it in one long, delicious gulp, a three-day period that unfortunately ended last night at 11:00. I’ll miss the characters; they feel like people I know well. Henkin manages to draw each character deeply, and that is no small feat, since there are eleven of them:
· Marilyn & David, a married couple, each 70 years old, moving apart due to the death a year ago of their journalist son
· Daughter Clarissa & her husband Nathan who are struggling with infertility
· Daughter Lily & Mitchell, her partner of ten years; she always speaks her mind while he stays behind the scenes
· Daughter Noelle & her husband Amram, Orthodox Jews who live in Israel
· Thisbe, the dead son’s widow, no longer a part of, yet forever part of, this grieving family
· Gretchen, the wealthy grandmother of the adult children
· Leo, the dead son, who comes to life in everyone’s observations regarding him
I hate it when I can’t like something about every person in a novel. But this wasn’t the case with The World Without You. Although aspects of some of the characters were totally unlovable, by the end of the book I knew why each of the characters was the way they were. I could forgive them their human foibles and love some small (or large) part of each of them.
Henkins’s novel is set as an intense four-emotional-days-in-a-row story. He throws the main characters together for a memorial service for their dead son and brother a year after his death. Henkin throws in big plot points for each character, too, and then mixes well and fast. But he also somehow mixes these days slowly. You get what it feels like to be trapped for days with your adult family, how time moves minute by excoriating minute sometimes, that there is no getting away from all of the history you share together.
Of course, I love this novel because each female character is like me, all fire but capable of coldly throwing jagged ice shards at the people around them. It’s interesting to watch the scenes unfold. You know when a sharp piece of cold ice is coming for someone, but Henkin doesn’t throw these out fast. He writes each scene with the details of setting fully formed, and pulls you toward the culminating battle slowly. You wait for the juicy, good stuff, but the ride is as rewarding as the verbal cut marks and the telling details he finally gives to the reader. These moments are so delicious I can’t share them with you. I cannot spoil the read for you. That would not be nice.
I love this novel because I know people like these male characters. They are men who are used to fiery women who always speak their minds; men who temper this living out loud with kindness and calmness and perhaps a well-placed bit of fear. When these men finally speak, I hear their measured tones and appreciate their truths set beside these women they love.
Finally, it’s the writing I adore. It’s always the writing in books that take up space in my memory bank. What is not to love with sentences like this one? “He prefers to be the observer—on most occasions, he’s like to a be a fly on the wall—and it was his misfortune to have his growth spurt take place when he was young, so that when he would have rather been out of sight, hiding under the staircase, simply watching the goings--on, he was always sticking out.” Henkins’s words don’t preen, but precisely describe characters and settings, and his dialogue feels real. Not showy, but true.
When I put this book down with a deep sigh of sadness, since I can never read it again for the first time, I wished what I always wish whenever I read a truly good book by an author who also teaches. If my life were footloose and fancy free and full of extra cash, I’d immediately enroll in the MFA program that Henkin directs at Brooklyn College.
It’s a lovely idea. Instead, I’ll put Henkins’s other novels on hold at the Seattle Public Library.
Nancy Schatz Alton is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. She has written two holistic health care guides: The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. Find her essays at www.withinthewords.com.