The father feels impotent, more than useless, as his wife screams and wails through the excruciating pain of childbirth. He ponders why he is even present. Problems are found and the doctors decide to induce the birth. However, the induction fails and when a third specialist Doctor enters, the father knows all is not well. This cannot be happening he thinks, they have already been through the horror of a miscarriage. The miscarriage had almost destroyed them as a couple and Wood’s writing describes the devastation and desolation after the miscarriage vividly.
So, when their child, a daughter, is born but passes away through the night, the nightmare that they thought they had escaped captures them again. The explanation for their baby’s passing is given, but it fades to insignificance as the parents are destroyed. This passage of the book is gut-wrenching, the pain that both parents are feeling is unbearable, visceral, palpable, you can feel it. Horrible and yet beautifully written.
“I saw myself as a man hollowed out, literally scraped clean on the inside, vital organs ripped from my sternum and replaced with something dense and heavy, some fluid dragging me into myself, as if the cavity inside me slushed about with tar.”
Their marriage starts to dissolve, a life raft where the parts are slowly breaking apart.
"The loss of the life we’d conceived was, we knew, a tinder to the life we’d made together and now we were waiting, just waiting, to wake up strapped to the pyre.”
The novel is about the father who narrates the story, and his pondering, his ruminations about the life that he and his wife were expecting, compared to the life that has unfolded after the loss of their daughter. Grief, how to live with it, how to move on from it.
While grieving himself, he explores the grief of others. He checks the news on the internet and becomes obsessed with different stories, stories that involve the value of life. Crimes where life has been taken, and the inevitable change to the families and loved one’s lives. One of these crimes is the Port Arthur massacre where Martin Bryant shot and killed 35 people in 1996. How did the people’s families deal with such unimaginable grief? He thinks about the levels of grief that holocaust survivors and the succeeding generations carry with them.
At times, the novel is quite philosophical. He tries to compare his level of grief with the grief experienced in the news stories he is following. How do you compare levels of grief? Do the circumstances of the death change the level? How do you put a value on a human life? Is the value of his daughter’s life measured by its length? Can a father forgive his daughter’s killer? How do you explain to a child that their mother is dead because the pilot of the plane she was on decided to fly it into a mountain?
The problem is that with these crimes, tragedies, there is a guilty party. With the guilty party there is the possibility of confrontation, explanation, and perhaps forgiveness. He does not know who to blame for his daughter’s death.
The writing is exquisite and lyrical, but this is no easy read, and is quite dark and claustrophobic. But this is what Wood wants you to feel. There are multiple narratives, and many switches. But this book will have you pondering the same problems the narrator does. So, to sum it up in a sentence, this is a brilliant novel, beautifully written, about a father exploring grief.
Daniel Davis Wood is a novelist and essayist based in Scotland. He is the author of BLOOD AND BONE, which won the 2014 Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and AT THE EDGE OF THE SOLID WORLD, as well as the shorter works UNSPEAKABLE and IN RUINS. He is also the founder and editor of Splice, a small press and online review of contemporary fiction.