The Reverend Richard Coles’s husband David was a mere 43 years old when he died just before Christmas 2019 — and yet, as Coles describes in his hugely moving act of remembrance The Madness of Grief (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£16.99), he had already reinvented himself several times.
His widower touches on all these lives — nomadic Northerner, nurse, vicar, craftsman, dachshund wrangler, husband — with a tender attentiveness that underlines the immensity of his loss. At the same time, he is also clear-eyed and truthful about the alcohol addiction that came to dominate David’s final years and wreck his health; neither he nor David’s family, he says, felt that he would make old bones.
Coles, of course, is no stranger to reinvention himself, and his life as a member of 1980s band The Communards and his current roles as a broadcaster (not to mention one-time Strictly Come Dancing contestant) all feed into his gifts as a performer. It’s no surprise, then, that his reading is pitch-perfect; although the narration is necessarily solemn, it also allows for the moments of humour that creep into even the most intimate of losses, the surreal drama that often surrounds death, the exasperation and guilt that inflect all loving relationships.
What I found particularly striking about the listening experience was the way that the book’s structure — an account of David’s final days, complete with mishaps at hospital car-park barriers, early-hours McDonalds and the assembling of friends and family that blends into a larger portrait of Coles and his husband’s lives and backgrounds — gives the sense of moving through time. He has a wonderfully suggestive turn of phrase, beautifully delivered: “In reality,” he says, “no one looks good in ICU”; the grief-stricken utter pleasantries that fall away “like rain off hostas”.
In bereavement, time always behaves oddly, the person who has died seeming both utterly present and improbably far away, the pain of today jostling with memory and a sense of a radically altered future. Coles reads into that dislocating sensation, a steady accretion of vignettes and feelings creating an aural kaleidoscope. It is, at heart, a meditation on the nature of loss and one that is as strangely comforting as it is wrenching and painful.
In fiction, the spring brings a raft of exciting new releases, and the beginning of the prize season. On the recently announced longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I discovered several novels that have made the successful transition to the spoken word. Among them were Raven Leilani’s Luster (Picador, RRP£15), which recounts the adventures of Edie, a 23-year-old black American who finds herself drawn into the lives of an older and far wealthier white couple who have adopted a black girl on the verge of adolescence.
The novel, read by Ariel Blake, works well because it is an incisive comedy of manners in which the protagonist is both delightfully knowing and simultaneously unaware of quite what she’s letting herself in for. Blake gives a sparky rendition, majoring on the book’s one-liners, its penchant for the dramatic scene and the interplay of voices that might be talking to one another, but are separated by a gulf of experience and understanding. If you’re tempted to listen your way through the longlist, I’d also recommend Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom and Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby.
Also just out is Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms (Granta Books, RRP£12.99) — a short but nonetheless exceptionally hard-hitting novel. Narrator Helen McAlpine’s task was to think herself into the voice of Bridget, a woman in her forties whose fractious, unhappy relationship with her mother Helen is thrown into new relief when she has to go and look after her following an accident.
Bridget is not herself a character who invites warmth, and her mother even less so, which might sound off-putting — but it is the sheer steeliness and brutality with which Riley sets about unpicking their strange bond that compels. McAlpine perfectly captures Bridget’s terseness and unsentimentality, her barely suppressed anger and the relentlessness of her ironic, probing gaze. The moments when she slips into Helen’s broader Liverpudlian accent, whether she’s telling anecdotes or bristling at any intrusion into more emotional territory, are strikingly good.
And finally for something more cheerful. Comedian Mel Giedroyc reads her first novel, The Best Things (Headline Review, RRP£17.49), with great gusto, zipping about her story of a ludicrously wealthy family who hit the skids both financially and emotionally.
Dysfunctional children, a rags-to-riches city trader who’s wedded to the high life and his collection of elite-performance lawnmowers, a collection of disaffected servants and a wife in retreat from the whole shooting match all begin to come apart at the seams. Giedroyc has a knack for bringing the set piece to life, and her energy levels rarely flag — and while this is undeniably light fare, it’s also charming, funny and energetic, something to lighten the days.
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