The earth is jammed with dead things. Everyone knows that. But this isn’t just another day of tiptoeing through jelly fish on the beach or scrubbing smashed insects off the windshield. This is different.
This is how we are first introduced to Brigs and Carrie; they are breaking into his mother’s house only to find her rotten remains lying on the floor of the living room. The novel goes on to describe the deaths and funerals of several more relatives in both the distant past and the more recent past. But what this book is really about is life. And love. Joys, sorrows, fears, marriage , and family. Jennifer Quist has taken the morbidity of death and the messiness of everyday life and turned it into something beautiful.
One of the (many) wonderful things about this book is the writing and the details in the writing. I could picture everything in vivid detail, and there were countless times that I thought to myself, “Yes! Exactly. That is exactly what it is like”. Life, as she writes it in The Love Letters of the Angels of Death, rings true.
The writing style used in this book is unique. Brigs is telling the story as “I”, and talking as though he is speaking or writing a letter to his wife, “you”. To me, it came across as a sort of love letter to his wife. It made the book feel intimate, like we are in on their secrets, the good and the bad. I loved it.
You’ve never heard it yourself – that sound you only make when you’re asleep. You don’t know it’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.
… I can tell just from your pressure and warmth against me, across my legs, against my shoulder – that I won’t ever live one moment here without you.
The empty air on your end of the phone is hollow and funny. You’re still in the stairwell, trying not to cry, and I can tell you hate yourself.
Do you ever read something in a book that is exactly like something you do or think, but thought that maybe you were the only one? There were several moments like that for me in this book. This next quote stands out for me as something I do all the time; many different versions of it, involving a rotating cast of loved ones.
Sometimes, usually when the weather is bad and the freeways are black with ice and the commute takes too long, you try it on – my death. You take it in – shallow but still very much beneath your skin. It’s a tiny injection of grief and fear. It’s meant to protect us, like an inoculation. You stand in our kitchen as the sky outside gets darker, and you let this contrived, imaginary tragedy immunize you against real sorrow. In your imagination, you marshal the possibility of my death into the small, controlled sphere – one you hope cannot coexist in the same world as a truly dead me. It’s a bit like Halloween – playing dead, acting it out to keep real death away.
Another thing I liked about this book is the fact that the author wrote about a happy marriage of a couple with 4 children. Although the children in the book did not play a huge role in the story, I could always feel them there, as a backdrop to the marriage, like they were so much a part of it they did not need to be mentioned. The evidence of them was always around; a pregnant belly, fingernails in the hair, the longing to be alone just for a few minutes. In a way, I think that if the children had played a bigger role, it would have taken something away from the story of their marriage.
Here is one of the best quotes I have ever read about parenthood and marriage:
And even through every offering you make, we both know the baby himself is not really an idol. He’s just an altar – a place to lay sacrifices. The sacrifice you make here is so profound I’ve never dared to mention my own – real but lost and invisible in the face of the cataclysm of your new motherhood. But the look of sameness in the routine of my life is not real. I have laid something precious on the altar of the baby too. My own sacrifice – it was you.
Several weeks later I am still thinking about this book. One regret I have is that I read it in mid-December when my mind is not as focused on what I’m reading. I feel like there is more I could have gotten out of it. I did, however, get to enjoy reading some of it when we went to visit family near Liverpool, Nova Scotia.
Laura has written a wonderful review of this book at Reading In Bed. At the end of her review, you will also find a Q&A with Jennifer Quist where she talks about the power of connection, the second person perspective, and whether or not to shelter our children from death.
Jennifer Quist was recently on the CBC where she talks about death, how she wrote her book, and Lego.
Love Letters of the Angels of Death has been long-listed for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel is due to come out in the Fall of 2015.