Sentinels of Grief in The Friend

the_friend_newdogIt is true what Joan Didion said about losing a loved one: “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” Life changes; the loved one is gone, and with that person a trove of shared moments, conversations, questions, unfinished business, the possibility of a future together. Life changes irrevocably in the ordinary instant, and yet for the bereaved, moving into that altered life is at first an impossible task. The bereaved must change too, but it is not an instantaneous change, and the circumstances leading up to it are seldom ordinary.

The unnamed narrator in Sigrid Nunez’s much-celebrated novel, The Friend, stands at the threshold of change after losing her friend and mentor to suicide. She is joined in grief by a melancholy Great Dane named Apollo, whom she inherits unexpectedly and who waits at the door in her too-small apartment for his lost master to return. He is a good analogy for the grieving process, for in his gigantic form he embodies the kind of presence that comes uninvited, demands attention, disrupts routine, behaves inscrutably, and has the power of ferocity and tenderness at once. []

Female Agency and Dystopia

Dystopian-NovelsWhen Margaret Atwood introduced The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, she called it an “antiprediction,” explaining: “If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen.” The last few years have seen a slew of laws and rulings restrict women’s sexual and reproductive rights in numerous states and anti-women measures and sentiments echoed in the highest offices of the federal government—developments that seem eerily reminiscent of the world Atwood described. Two recent novels, Red Clocks and The Power, build on the genre of The Handmaid’s Tale by reimagining the fate of female agency with the urgency of our time.

More on the Ploughshares blog…

The Alchemy of Science and Storytelling

Hiking inside the Hoh Rainforest of Washington earlier this summer, I stopped for a moment, remembering Robin Wall Kimmerer’s descriptions of immersing herself in wilderness and taking time to listen. Gradually, my ears attuned to the fall of mist and birdsong around me. I knelt low to observe the tendrils of mosses, droplets of dew, and soft crumbles of soil spilling off glistening mushrooms. My walk among the towering ancient cedars took on new meaning after reading Braiding Sweetgrass, with Kimmerer’s words—like these ones—having seeped into me:

Here in the rainforest, I don’t want to just be a bystander to rain, passive and protected; I want to be part of the downpour, to be soaked, along with the dark humus that squishes underfoot. I wish that I could stand like a shaggy cedar with rain seeping into my bark, that water could dissolve the barrier between us. I want to feel what the cedars feel and know what they know.

Read more about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine on the Ploughshares blog.