The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen

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The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Beautifully written, this is tackles the brave subject of infant death and the impact on family falling apart as they struggle to cope. The lack of communication leads to characters being self-absorbed which can be wearing and unrelenting - understandable in the situation perhaps.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Clerkenwell Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781846686269

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Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012

As the title suggests, the subject matter of Leah Hager Cohen's The Grief of Others is pretty grim stuff. The Ryrie family, living in the suburbs of New York, suffer the tragic loss of a baby just fifty seven hours after it is born. The book details how, one year later, the family are coping, or more accurately not coping.

The cover blurb tells us that in the US, this was an 'Oprah Pick' and that tells you much about what to expect. It's a classic Oprah story in that it details family emotions, has a huge chunk of trauma and is just that little bit 'worthy'. I'm in something of two minds about it. I have no doubt that it is beautifully written, and particularly in the opening scene describing Mum, Ricky's feelings as her son is born, incredibly moving. Although thankfully never having been in that awful situation, it at least feels psychologically realistic throughout. However, throughout the book, the main characters, Ricky, husband John, and two children, thirteen-year-old Paul and ten-year-old Elizabeth, known throughout by her nickname of Biscuit, and the less central characters, the twenty-three-year-old daughter of John's earlier relationship, Jess and random stranger, Gordie all infuriated me at some point.

On one reading, the characters are mawkishly self-obsessed and this is only partly justified by the terrible events with which the Ryrie family is faced with. One section of the book covers the period eight years previous to the baby's death which is supposed to represent a happier time, but even then the adult characters are prone to self-obsessive traits and are not wholly likeable. In fact, one of my main gripes is that John and Ricky just don't seem to belong together. If I had believed more in their relationship, I might have felt more positively about the book.

One of their major faults as a family is not communicating after the death of baby Simon. What we get instead is a hugely complex and sophisticated internal dialogue that suggests that they are capable of expressing themselves and yet when they do open their mouths to each other, they just make things worse. This introspective approach leads to an inevitable problem for Cohen in that she is rather forced to rely on telling rather than showing.

Cohen also crucially has her two main adult female characters tell whopping great lies and then express great surprise at people's reactions when they are found out.

It also comes over as somewhat one-paced. As we cycle through each character again we are faced with introspection and the effect can be quite draining. There are precious few changes of pace or levity although the moment when Biscuit gets 'dunked' in the river accidentally by Ebie, Gordie's clumsy Newfoundland rescue dog is one exception. In fact, Ebie is the only one that doesn't seem to be in the grip of morbid angst. It's ten year old Biscuit who is the star of the book for me, but this only served to reinforce the feeling that I was being emotionally pressured to empathise with story. It's hard not to like a suffering ten year old, particularly when they're called Biscuit.

I am aware that this all sounds quite damning but the conundrum is that doesn't make it a bad book, nor one that I wouldn't recommend. It is beautifully written and a psychologically believable up to a point. It would make a very good book club choice as, providing you can persist with the introspection, it's not a book that you could feel ambivalent about. It's almost certain that you will have strong views about the actions of, particularly John and Ricky, but also Jess. Just maybe their actions are all justified by the situation they face, but I have a nagging doubt that this is not the only reason for their behaviour.

At the risk of generalization, there is in post 9/11 New York in particular an understandable introspection about death and this is a strong, brave and ultimately quite moving literary example. But to this British reader there is a lack of what those annoying posters urge us to do: keep calm and carry on.

Our thanks to the kind people at Clerkenwell Press for sending us this interesting novel.

If you hunger for more moribund fare, then Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift is equally thoughtful and moving.

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Buy The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen at


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