|Lifesaving for Beginners by Anne Edelstein|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: Edelstein's mother drowned in the Great Barrier Reef in 1998. In this debut memoir, she relives their testy relationship and posits that her brother's earlier suicide was what for a long time blocked her from processing her mother's untimely death. Though capably written, this doesn't particularly stand apart from other recent bereavement stories.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 226||Date: November 2017|
|Publisher: Red Hen Press|
|External links: Author's website|
Anne Edelstein is a literary agent based in New York City. Hundreds of manuscripts must cross her desk every year, but this is her first book of her own. It reflects on the history of loss in her family, starting with the most flagrant example: her mother Lois's death while snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef on a major holiday to New Zealand and Australia in March 1998. Lois had just retired from a rewarding career as a Hebrew school principal in Boston. She was in her sixties and in good health; the autopsy found no particular reason for her sudden death by drowning, not even a heart attack. 'It's impossible, but it's true. Just like that, my mother's life has ended,' Edelstein remembers thinking.
The oldest of three children, she'd always had a testy relationship with their mother: 'I had to be careful not to reveal too much. I knew that she could be unpredictable, that sympathy could quickly turn into criticism.' Lois seemed to favour her other children: Tom, who was often sickly due to a kidney disease, and Danny, the youngest, who was funny and energetic but also prone to depression. Danny committed suicide, via a knife to the abdomen, more than a decade before their mother's untimely death.
His was only one in a series of family suicides, including Edelstein's Uncle Jack (gas) and her maternal grandfather (pills at a public bath house). Lois always maintained that her father had died of a heart attack; Edelstein didn't learn the truth until she was in her twenties. Moreover, his death took place in the same week that Edelstein was born. The family's calendar was full of such minefields: events that one really wouldn't want to commemorate yet cannot forget.
The memoir moves back and forth between the aftermath of Lois's death and earlier episodes from family life. As a thematic link, Edelstein focuses on her experiences of swimming and holidays. For instance, she remembers swimming in the lake at summer camp as a child and eventually earning a 'Senior Lifesaver' designation – ironic considering she could do nothing later on to save some of the lives most precious to her. After her mother's death Edelstein and her husband and children would decamp to Deer Isle, Maine for summers. Even there, tragedy wouldn't leave them alone: a disabled man committed suicide in the pond one year.
Surprisingly, the book ends up being more about Edelstein's brother's death than her mother's. As the years pass, the author progresses from confusion about her mother's true self to nascent understanding and sympathy: from 'My mother is like a beach I can't get to' to 'I'm starting to see my mother from the outside.' She believes the key to this step forward was facing up to Danny's suicide, so it wasn't a dark family secret but an accepted part of life.
Bereavement memoirs have formed a significant portion of my reading for a number of years now. In comparison to some of the best I've read – from Mark Doty, Marion Coutts, Helen Macdonald, Elizabeth Alexander and Lu Spinney – Edelstein's is less well crafted, linguistically and thematically. There's always the danger of a memoir devolving into a list of events, and in places this can seem like a catalogue of all the bad things that ever happened in this family, including her husband's mother's death from cancer. I can see this book being most appealing and helpful to those who are trying to come to terms with a family history of suicide.
Further reading suggestions: As bereavement memoirs go, we can highly recommend The Iceberg: A Memoir by Marion Coutts and A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy by Sue Klebold, which also has a suicide theme.
You can read more book reviews or buy Lifesaving for Beginners by Anne Edelstein at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Lifesaving for Beginners by Anne Edelstein at Amazon.com.
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