Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen

Grief is quiet and consuming and solitary but it eats away at happiness and connection like an acid. In Leah Hager Cohen's exqusite new novel, grief is smothering the tiny flicker of life left in the Ryrie family. John and Ricky's marriage is failing as they mourn the loss of their infant son a year previously. Not only can they not find their way back to each other, but they cannot find their way to helping their older children, 13 year old Paul, a target of bullying, and 9 year old Elizabeth, called Biscuit, who is skipping school regularly and obsessed with cultural death rituals. The loss of Simon, born with anancephaly and only living 57 hours past his birth, magnifies the existing cracks in the Ryrie family. And the collective silence about his existence and death serves to split the cracks wide open. Into this struggling house comes Jess, John's oldest daughter and the product of a prior relationship. She is in her early twenties, single, and pregnant. Her presence complicates evyerthing and highlights the happier time years before when, as a young teenager, she vacationed with the Ryries.

The narrative follows each of the six main characters, getting into their heads and showing the different ways in which their grief and longing cripples them. Each of the characters, the four Ryries, Jess, and Gordie, a young man reeling from his own father's death and introduced to the Ryries through Biscuit, is complete and realistic. While some of the decisions made by the characters, John and Ricky in particular, are hard to understand, the truth and burden of their individual mourning make the decisions real and wrenching, especially when seen in the context of the family and in the impact on each of the other, equally needy, characters. The narrative timeline moves back and forth from the present, capturing the months before Simon's birth and immediately following as well as eight years prior when Jess last spent time with the Ryries. This allows the reader to see into the heart of the familial relationships to their very core, even before grief so overwhelmed them.

Cohen's writing is simply gorgeous, filled with amazing descriptions that take your breath away. She has effectively isolated her characters from each other even when they need each other the most and it is impossible to feel anything but deepest sorrow at their very alone-ness. That each of them is profoundly lonely and incapable of re-establishing long frayed bonds is overwhelming and adds to the pervasive sadness of the story above and beyond the loss of a baby. The characters' very secrets hold them at arms length from each other, husband from wife, parents from children, Ryries from family outsiders, and the revelation of their deepest beliefs will change their lives forever. While it is hard to comprehend the remoteness of the characters, Cohen has done a marvelous job drawing these broken people who have lost the ability to trust and to nurture and to make a family. Absorbing and effecting, this was a moving novel about loss and secrets and family and trust and the struggle to emerge from grief not unchanged but whole.

For more information about Leah Hager Cohen and the book visit her webpage, her blog, or visit her on Facebook.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. "it eats away at happiness and connection like an acid" - wow, that is certainly a vivid image ... you got my attention from the very first sentence.

    Sounds like this was a fantastic read for you. Thanks for being on the tour!

  2. I have read a few reviews of this one and they have convinced me I have to read this. It sounds so powerful.

  3. You make this book sound so powerful. It's a tricky thing to write about, but it sounds like the author has definitely pulled it off.


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