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Death’s power to erode and silence human speech has catalyzed a rich and varied flood of writing, some of which is collected in this book. Each of its four sections is devoted to one of the ways in which we speak and write in the context of death: eulogies, letters, elegies, and epitaphs. Culled from a chronological range stretching roughly from Roman antiquity to the present, these texts represent the famous, the anonymous, and all manner of people in between: as subjects of praise, mourning, and remembrance; as writers of speeches, letters, and poems about the dead; and as recipients of condolence letters.
The title story, "In the Gloaming," recounts a mother's final weeks with her 33 year old son who is dying from AIDS. Janet realizes that "the enemy was part of Laird, and neither he nor she nor any of the doctors or experts or ministers could separate the two." (p. 29) He dies at home with his mother next to him.
"Home" depicts the struggle of an elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer's dementia who is being coerced by her family to live in a nursing home. She immediately understands that living there would essentially kill her.
In "Watch the Animals," Diana Frick is a wealthy animal lover who has no interest in human relationships. After being diagnosed with lung cancer, she refuses conventional treatment and continues to smoke cigarettes. Surrounded by her pets, she commits suicide by drug overdose but not before she has arranged new homes for all her animals.
In 1929, a Danish physician identifies a new strain of smallpox that is capable of infecting and killing even those individuals who have previously been vaccinated against the disease. Before this incurable plague reaches them, the citizens of Vaden, a prosperous town renowned for their fanatical love of children, unanimously agree to barricade the city from the rest of the world.
Only once during this time when Vaden has quarantined all of Denmark does the town make an exception. A traveling European circus is allowed into the city because the mayor cannot bring himself to refuse its sick children. Unbeknownst to the villagers, a dwarf clown who is the featured performer of the circus has just died from the virulent strain of smallpox, but not before introducing it to Vaden. A 12 year old member of the circus successfully impersonates the dead clown. One night, the imposter with his wooden flute leads the children out of Vaden through a gate in the wall.
Despite years of trying, Cara Glanzman and her husband, Richard Case, both thirty-four years old, are unable to have a child. In fact she is contemplating getting a divorce, and he has decided that he really doesn't want any children. Everything changes when Cara is raped and becomes pregnant by Derrick James Cooper, also known as the "Reservoir Rapist." Although Cara initially considers having an abortion, she decides to have the baby.
As the pregnancy progresses, Cara discovers herself even as her husband becomes lost and despondent. The couple is greatly aided by a delightful midwife named Dorothy Pendleton. When Cara's large, hairy son is born, Richard is present to assist Dorothy with the delivery. "Wolfman Junior," the son of a monster, seems to be accepted by both his mother and surrogate father.
When Ruth's unfaithful and unappreciative husband Bobbo calls her a she-devil, she decides to appropriate that identity with a vengeance and take a different spot in the power relations of the world. She wants revenge, power, money, and "to be loved and not love in return"(49). Specifically, Ruth wants to bring about the downfall of her husband's lover, Mary Fisher, a pretty, blonde romance novelist who lives in a tower by the sea and lacks for neither love nor money nor power.
Ruth commences her elaborate revenge by burning down her own home and dumping her surly children with Mary and Bobbo. She continues on a literally shape-shifting quest in which she changes identities; gains skill, power, and money; and explores and critiques key sites of power and powerlessness in contemporary society, including the church, the law, the geriatric institution, the family home, and (above all) the bedroom.
By the end of the novel, Ruth achieves all four of her goals in abundance. Her success, however, raises complex ethical questions, not only because she uses the same strategies of manipulation and cruelty of which she was a victim, but also because of the painful physical reconstruction of her body that is the tool of her victory.
Alois Burda loves money. He is a wealthy owner of a car dealership who has many acquaintances but no true friends. He has been married twice and has three children but is uninterested in his family. Prior to his sixtieth birthday, he experiences weight loss, abdominal pain, and night sweats. Burda is diagnosed with inoperable metastatic cancer of the pancreas.
He seems worried most about what to do with his property and money. Before entering the hospital, he hides his money in some old slippers until he can decide what to do with it. He is comforted by a young nurse, Vera, whose voice reminds him of his mother's. After he dies, Burda's wife discards her husband's belongings into a heap of rubbish, unaware of the fortune hidden in his slippers.
The spoiled Long Island heiress, Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) is suffering from severe headaches and visual disturbances, which she tries to ignore in pursuit of wild parties and frenetic horse-back riding. Her friend and secretary, Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald), and the old family doctor bring her to Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent). Steele has just sold his neurosurgical practice and is about to catch a train to Vermont where he will devote himself to fulltime research on malignant brain tumors. He delays his departure to operate successfully on Judith's glioma.
He and his patient fall in love. But Steele learns that her disease will recur in a predictable manner: blindness followed by painless death. He and Ann conspire to hide the prognosis from Judith. A wedding is planned and the move to Vermont. But Judith uncovers the secret and flies into a rage at the treachery, breaking off the engagement.
She tries to drown her sorrow of impending doom in drink, a frivolous dalliance with a drunken suitor (Ronald Reagan), and a more serious dalliance with her horse-trainer, Michael (Humphrey Bogart). On the verge of sin with Michael, she realizes that her only hope lies in life itself, marriage and the house in Vermont. Steele conducts his laboratory research in a back shed and the couple carry on as if her death sentence did not exist.
Living a lie provides their few months of happiness, their "Dark Victory," Judith says, over the cruel promise of her death. Just as Steele is invited to New York to present his research, her vision begins to cloud and fade. She tells Ann, but keeps the news from her husband. He leaves the now blind Judith and her friend in the garden planting bulbs that will bloom in spring. She sends Ann away too, and lies down to face her romantic (but painless) end alone.
This fine collection of nine stories--the author's first--offers the reader a variety of experiences that are both familiar and foreign. All concern Southeast Asian Indian (often Bengali) protagonists living either in India, or after transplantation, in the United States. All provide rich descriptions of the details of Indian life, and of cultural values and customs. While the domestic routines (for example, Indian food and cooking provide an important backdrop in several stories) may be unfamiliar to American readers, the style and themes of Lahiri's writing are highly accessible, absorbing, and moving.
Most of the stories are written from a perspective that is between cultures. The characters are not traumatized refugees but are negotiating a path in a country (America) that seems to provide opportunities ("A Temporary Matter," "The Third and Final Continent," "Mrs. Sen's," "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine"); or they are the Americanized children of such Indian families ("Interpreter of Maladies," "This Blessed House"). Ties to the Asian sub-continent may be strong or weak, primary text or subtext, but they are ever-present. Living between cultures lends an extra layer of complexity to situations and relationships that are difficult in and of themselves.
Raina is 17, living alternately on the streets with a boyfriend addicted to hard drugs and at home with an abusive mother, also an addict. She has been victimized by a succession of her mother's live-in boyfriends and lost a young brother to an accidental overdose: he swallowed some of his mother's pills while the mother slept and seven-year-old Raina was watching him.
Margaret Johnson is 45, Raina's teacher at an underfunded, overcrowded public school where Raina's life of squalor is more typical than not. Her own story is told in chapters that alternate with Raina's story and with the texts of autobiographical compositions Raina gives her but refuses to discuss. Only when Raina finds herself pregnant, shortly after her boyfriend has been killed in a drug-related accident, does she take Ms. Johnson up on her repeated offers of help.
She lives at the teacher's home for awhile, runs away to her own home, unused to kind treatment and afraid she'll disappoint the teacher and be thrown out, goes to a shelter, has her baby, and finally returns, having nowhere to go. Ms. Johnson, with some hesitation, takes her and the baby in and the three begin to work out a life together, knowing it will involve difficult change, but willing to bet on love against the odds.
A young boy tells us, "My cat Barney died last Friday. I was very sad." Barney's mother suggests he think of ten good things to tell about Barney at his funeral. The story details his feelings and, from his perspective, the way his parents and friend Annie deal with the loss, ritual of burial and questions of afterlife (heaven, Barney's whereabouts now).
After the funeral, and after helping his father in the garden, comes a new and comforting understanding--the tenth good thing is that Barney's body becomes part of the cyclical process of nature. Fertilizing trees, grass and "helping grow flowers," the boy tells his mother as she tucks him into bed, is "a pretty nice job for a cat."