A grieving mother creates a palpable, imagined son.
In her recent memoir, Li (Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, 2017, etc.), a MacArthur fellow and winner of several writing awards, revealed having suffered from recurring depression and twice attempting suicide. The consequences of suicide for the living are central to her quiet, unsettling new novel, construed as a conversation between a mother and her dead 16-year-old son, Nikolai. “I was almost you once,” his mother tells the child she desperately and passionately imagines back to life, “and that’s why I have allowed myself to make up this world to talk with you”—about sadness, motherhood, memory, and the inadequacy of words. Although he is precocious, articulate, and often impatient—accusing his mother of resorting to clichés—Nikolai never explains his reasons for ending his life, saying only, “You promised that you would understand.” But though she knows that “contentment was never a word in his dictionary,” understanding defies her: She knows nothing of “the bad dreams he had not told me over the years, the steps he had walked and the thoughts he had gone through on his last day.” Searching for words to convey her pain, she finds “no good language when it comes to the unspeakable.” “Words provided to me—loss, grief, sorrow, bereavement, trauma—never seemed to be able to speak precisely of what was plaguing me,” the mother says. A writer, she once had begun a novel in which a woman lost her son to suicide when she was 44. “I had not known the same thing would happen to me when I was forty-four,” she tells her son. “Maybe,” he suggests, “you’ve been writing the novel to prepare yourself.” She has always written to prepare herself for losing him, she reflects, “pre-living the pain” as if to inure herself to it. But “pre-living is not living,” she says. “I will be sad today and tomorrow, a week from now, a year from now. I will be sad forever.”
A tender, haunting meditation on loss.