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.) Continue reading