Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Loppuunkäsitelty by Anna-Leena Härkönen

"Are you here to arrest me?" I wanted to quip. But something about their faces made me shut up. Are you Kirsti Härkönen's sister? Yes. We have some very bad news. Now I know. The next question is useless. I ask it anyway.
"Did something happen?"

"Yes. We have some very bad news."
"She's dead."
My next thoughts are: It can't be true. Of course it's true. 
I talk to myself. I tell myself, you had no way of knowing. That you have to be smart about this. You couldn't have done anything. I decide that I'm not going to start blaming myself or asking what-ifs.

Blaming myself and what-ifs begin within an hour.

How do you praise a book about suicide without coming off as contrived or plain inappropriate? I'm honestly not sure. I've had this draft sitting around for a couple of months now, always waiting for an appropriate time to push it live--but such time never comes.

But now we're here, because Loppuunkäsitelty* is a tiny, important book about grief.

In it, Finnish novelist Anna-Leena Härkönen reveals her and her immediate relatives' reactions to her sister's suicide from the moment the police arrive at the doorstep to a year later, when the siblings try to figure out out an appropriate way to remember the day their sister died.

It's an amazingly touching book, yet never sappy. The reader is bombarded with emotions: the fury at the sister for leaving the rest of them to deal with the aftermath ("If I saw you walking down the street right now I'd kill you," Härkönen writes); the hollow sadness upon realizing that she's not in a dream, and that she doesn't know exactly how to answer the question, "How many sisters or brothers do you have?" without making it awkward while staying honest. Härkönen makes morbid jokes and laughs hysterically.

Then there's the guilt: as soon as Härkönen heard the news she created a folder on her computer. And began to write. Does this mean she's selfish by using a horrendous tragedy to fish for a publishing deal, for money? Or is it the only meaningful outlet she has for all the overwhelming questions that have taken over her life? Not having any definite answers has become her uncomfortable reality.

Härkönen is not out to clear her sister's name or make her into an untouchable saint. The book is about how one person reacts when something this terrifying happens. It gives permission for other people to express a range of emtions, instead of acting in ways that others have decided socially acceptable for a situation they have never encountered.

Especially consoling is the way Härkönen tries to later recall events without looking back at her notes. She swears the police informed her about her sister's death in one way, but she's wrong--the readers have seen her notes from Day 1. Then one day she has a hard time remembering any details correctly. It's how pain marches on: its weight may feel too hard to handle, but there will be a day when it's subsided, at least a little.

(*The title literally means "done with"--when no more opinions or facts can be presented and the case is closed. It's wishful thinking on Härkönen's part, which she admits.)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Lisey's Story by Stephen King

The grin on his face was still there but it was getting smaller, fading until it was little more than a quirk and one shallow dimple. Water, meanwhile, had risen in his eyes. The lost scared voice tried to call its warning again and she ignored it. This was a cutting party now. [...] Standing in the kitchen door and waiting for him to come back, she can't remember all the things she said, only that each one was a little worse, a little more perfectly tailored to hurt. [...] The silence was enormous and she realized she wanted to go back and had no idea how to do it. The simplest thing--I love you anyway, Scott, come to bed--will not occur to her until later.  Not until after the bool.

It's been over a decade since I actively gorged on King, and when I recently read Under the Dome I was reminded of what a great storyteller he is.

Lisey's Story story may not be among my favorites when it comes to style, but it brought back how visceral reading King can get: there's an unknown, fantastical evil lurking in the corners--either a crazed madman or our own, appalling behavior--eluding our eyes, overwhelming the reader with discomfort equivalent to wearing terry cloth clothes that are a size too small. Seriously. He's amazing with making you feel uncomfortable.

But Lisey's Story does not just make you shift in your seat, nor is it just fantasy, or horror. It doesn't feel too far-fetched to read as a manual to understanding a loved one's mental illness. Although in the novel all the crazy stuff is actually real, it's an excellent display of  how crazy stuff feels that real to the person experiencing it. The more Lisey begins to use words that his late husband had concocted, the crazier she now sounds--and suddenly she and her husband are both in the reader's head, and there I am, thinking their crazy thoughts and understanding their made-up words.

Beyond that, Lisey's Story digs into the importance of memories, even when we do our best to suppress the really bad ones because hey, those are memories about events that made us who we are. When the dead speak to us, there are no ghosts hovering around; they speak to us with words we may have wanted to shut out in the past, but now we are ready to listen.

Although Lisey's Story may at first glance appear a thriller where a widow tries to shake a crazed fan off her tail, it really is more about the complexity of love, and what you may need to endure through sickness and in health.