Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist
My rating: 4/5 stars
A breathtaking literary debut, Love Letters of the Angels of Death begins as a young couple discover the remains of his mother in her mobile home. The rest of the family fall back, leaving them to reckon with the messy, unexpected death. By the time the burial is over, they understand this will always be their role: to liaise with death on behalf of people they love. They are living angels of death. All the major events in their lives – births, medical emergencies, a move to a northern boomtown, the theft of a veteran’s headstone – are viewed from this ambivalent angle. In this shadowy place, their lives unfold: fleeting moments, ordinary occasions, yet on the brink of otherworldliness. In spare, heart-stopping prose, the transient joys, fears, hopes and heartbreaks of love, marriage, and parenthood are revealed through the lens of the eternal, unfolding within the course of natural life. This is a novel for everyone who has ever been happily married — and for everyone who would like to be.
I thought this was going to be another one of those books that hits home, and it was, but not for the reasons I thought. I knew that the main character’s mother dies and that we learn about how his wife is able to support him by tuning into his needs. Quist says this of that opening scene (read the whole interview at her publisher’s web site):
The fact is, the opening scene is based on a real experience my husband and I shared when his father died unexpectedly and alone. During that disaster, I coped with my own shock and grief by making my husband’s feelings and perceptions the only things that mattered to me. It was a desperate strategy meant to get both of us through the experience as undamaged as possible. I went back into that hyper-empathetic frame of mind to write the first chapter of the novel. I’d been there before. The rest of the book – the fiction – evolved out of that truth.
I figured it was the story of a happy marriage made even happier by a traumatic event. That’s… not how it works for me. My husband lost his father four years ago, just three weeks before the birth of our first child, which was traumatic and accompanied by postpartum depression. We turned inward rather than toward each other. Neither of us were good spouses during that time. So, I was prepared for a literary smack upside the head – why didn’t this make us stronger? Why couldn’t I put my needs aside when my husband was grieving? Why couldn’t he see that I was struggling too?
But the book wasn’t about smack downs at all. Nor was it a marriage manual (though Quist gives some great pointers here.) It was, duh, a story, and once I got over the second-person perspective I was immersed and not worrying about the state of my marriage. Love Letters speaks directly to my tastes in many ways – the prairie and maritime settings, the morbidity, the Catholic relics, the heroine who is most definitely a feminist and shares my incapacitating fear of bugs (if I ever see a tar sand beetle I will die.)
It spoke directly to me in other ways too. This line in particular knocked the air out of me. Brigs is speaking to Carrie in the midst of new parenthood:
I have laid something precious on the altar of the baby too. May own sacrifice – it was you.
As a new mother, I passed the time at 2 am making inventories of all the things I gave up: sleep, sanity, body parts that didn’t leak. It takes a lot of empathy to acknowledge that your partner has given something up, too.
Though I wouldn’t call us Angels of Death just yet, I relate to the morbid quality in Carrie and Brig’s marriage too. Carrie rationalizes her worrying when Brigs is late by calling it a practice run for the day he really doesn’t make it home. She, like me, assumes that she’ll be a widow at some point. That’s the thing with marriage; we pretend it’s forever when realistically, barring divorce or disaster, someone is going to die first and someone is going to end up alone. Love Letters is about how to reconcile the marriage fantasy from the reality.
Quist has been criticized for omitting kids from the picture. The Montreal Review of Books writes:
Brigs and Carrie have four small sons, but there is a strange absence of toddler life. Carrie never seems to have mashed banana on her T-shirt or crusty egg yolk in her hair; there is no sense of the constant parental struggle to get enough sleep or eat a blissfully uninterrupted meal.
I admit that I felt the same way at times, though there is a notable scene where Carrie has fingernail clippings in her hair, which is pretty gross. But, again, to me this book is about a marriage, and the marriage exists outside of the kids. It’s possible to assume that the mess and monotony of parenting is there, it’s just not what Brigs is choosing to tell Carrie. And why would he have to tell her, she’s living it!
I have a feeling that some readers might struggle with the second-person narration. It took me about 20 pages to really get into a groove, and throughout I had to use a couple more brain cells that usual to remember who was talking and why. But it’s not done just for the sake of being different. When you get to the end, you’ll know why Quist chose to write it this way, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be blown away.
I know I said that this isn’t a marriage manual, but the next couple to invite me to their wedding is getting this book as a wedding present. Now, if only I could convince my husband to read it!
Jennifer Quist was born in northern mainland British Columbia and raised all over Maritime and Western Canada, the eldest daughter in a close family of seven children. She has a BA at the University of Alberta with first class Honours in Sociology and has worked with Alberta First Nations, as a freelance researcher, a reporter, and columnist.
In 2012 her “Fish Story” was nominated for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Howard O’Hagan Award. Her fiction is published in Filling Station, in NorthWord and in The 40 Below Project (forthcoming November 2013), her poetry in The Prairie Journal, commentary in The Globe and Mail and The National Post, essays in Maclean’s, Today’s Parent, and Alberta Oil, and she has written and voiced introspective personal essays for CBC Radio One’s Definitely Not the Opera and Tapestry.
Love Letters of the Angels of Death is her first novel.
Author website: www.jenniferquist.com.
Jennifer was very generous in answering my questions. I found out that I was right about some of my assumptions, and way off on others. Check it out:
Did any books or authors influence Love Letters? I was getting a Wuthering Heights vibe, particularly: “Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”
Yes, even though it wasn’t in the front of my mind while I was writing, I have mentioned Wuthering Heights as being related to my novel. Wuthering Heights is one of those books that’s more of a cultural phenomenon than it is something people actually read from cover to cover so mentioning it as an influence can be dodgy. I have read all of it and I found the book fascinating but a bit frustrating. It’s about two people so utterly involved in each other their connection becomes powerful enough to destroy just about everyone close-by. I think my novel tells the opposite story. It’s precisely because my couple is so involved in each other that they have anything to offer anyone else. Their connection is meant to have the same power – the totality, the transcendence – as Cathy and Heathcliff’s connection only, in our case, the force builds things up instead of breaking things down. But if I’d written Brigs as a 19th century Gypsy urchin and Cathy as someone with bizarre class prejudices to overcome, I suppose my novel would be different.
The second-person perspective is one of the most striking things about the book. You could describe is as epistolary, though it’s not in traditional letter format. I imagined Brig talking to Carrie in bed, like, maybe it helped her go to sleep. Did you have something particular in mind, in terms of how or why Brig was telling the story?
I haven’t considered the “how” of his storytelling in terms as concrete as letter writing or pillow-talk. To me, Brigs’s voice is just as abstract as any other narrator’s. I knew the second person would be unfamiliar in a novel even though most of the reading and writing and certainly the speaking and singing we do is done in the second person – texts, emails, poetry, just about every song on the radio. Maybe what’s actually strange is that we are trained when we’re young to throw off our natural “you, you, you” form of address when we’re writing fiction and essays. In some ways, the third person narrator is an artistic conceit. None of us really has that voice in real life. But we’re all so used to it we feel unmoored when we don’t find it where we expect it. My feeling is that our expectations ought to be flexible to the demands of our artwork. I wanted my novel to read as intimate. I worked toward that by using, among other things, a second person narrator. I did it this way instead of turning the usual trick of loading the story with sex scenes – a trick which, while sensually provocative, is artistically rather tired and can be a sloppy shorthand for writing true intimacy.
Many parents have strong opinions about whether or not young children should attend funerals (judging by online parenting forums, anyway.) Do you think kids should be sheltered from death? Is it even possible to do that?
I was an 18 year old university student, sitting near the back of a huge lecture theatre at the U of A, when I first jotted down this quote from psychologist, Erik H. Erikson: “Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.” I’m no disciple of psychoanalytic theory and I may interpret this statement differently than Erikson intended but it rang true in my little, teenaged heart anyway. My dad was raised in a house that had once been a funeral home – a front room as big as a chapel, a “cold room” with long, wide shelves like berths on a ship. Death was part of the furniture for him as a child. He grew up a little bit haunted but not unhappy. As a parent, he taught me what he knew of the practicalities and eschatologies of death. We’ve taken a similar approach with our children. Gravity doesn’t have to mean misery. Haunting doesn’t have to be horrifying. Death is something to reverence and respect but it’s also something to speak of, to lay hands on, to sort out. It’s full of paradoxes. Maybe those paradoxes are best understood by acting them out. I think Western professionalization and alienation from death rites is bad for everybody. It leaves us uninitiated and immature, just like children ourselves when it comes to death. And that broadens our exposure to the fear Erikson warns us about.
Did you start blogging as part of the lead up to your book? Will you keep it going?
Here’s where I date myself. Before there was blogging, there were columns in weekly newspapers where local hacks could write six hundred words about whatever they liked. I was one of those hacks. I wrote weekly opinion/lifestyle/self-indulgent-rant columns for newspapers in small-town southern Alberta and then in Fort McMurray. It was a lifeline to the thinking world during my years of pregnancy and breastfeeding. I loved it. I started noticing bloggers after we moved away from Fort McMurray. By then, I knew it was time to get serious if I wanted a career in long-form fiction and I needed to do less short-form non-fiction if I was going to have any resources to do that. I finally started blogging after I got my publishing contract. Yeah, it’s a way to connect with readers but it’s also part of my necessary education and integration into the industry. I had no idea how isolated I’d been from the literary community until I started feeling around for it. I’ll definitely keep blogging especially now that I know it’s not just for fan-fiction, haters, and mommy-wars.
What are your favourite classic novels?
Classic novels? I’m actually more of a Charlotte Bronte than an Emily Bronte fan. I’m still not over Jane Eyre even though it is very silly and preachy in places. I don’t think I’ve ever read something by an old Russian that I didn’t end up loving – after I got used to everyone being called by three or four different names.
Thank you to Linda Leith Publishing for the review copy of this book!