A different take on bereavement

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Click photo to download. Caption: The book cover for "The World Without You." Credit: Courtesy Joshua Henkin.

I recently met an 80-year-old man, who started to tell me about his 12 grandchildren. 

“Wonderful,” I said.

“But there were 13,” he added.

Joshua Henkin’s third novel, The World Without You, takes place in that conversational space—the awkwardness of what to say next. Is there a right thing to say to compensate for the loss of a child?

Henkin—who previously published Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book—begins his latest work by portraying how a family interacts with the outside world, as well as each other, in the aftermath of its loss. The bereaved parents in The World Without You are planning to separate, in part because the mother feels betrayed when the father tells a new acquaintance he has three children. The couple differs on whether or not to discuss their deceased child when meeting people who don’t know of their loss.  

The novel chronicles the days before and after the one-year anniversary of the July death of Leo, the only son and youngest among the four children of Dr. Marilyn and David Frankel. The clan includes the late son’s widow and his child from Berkeley, Ca., his three sisters from New York, Washington, DC, and Jerusalem, and the parents and grandmother from Manhattan, gathering in the family summer home in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

The aura of privilege around this family is an intentional contrast to the horror of Leo’s death as a journalist in Iraq, much like that of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. The book’s epigraph, “Things seldom end in one event,” is from a short story by Richard Ford (author of Independence Day). Henkin’s choice of that epigraph tells readers that the thrust of his book focuses on the aftermath of Leo’s death for the various family members.

Though a book like this—if not written well—has the potential to devolve into a sprawling and uncontrolled mess of many characters, Henkin’s control of the writing and tight grasp on the story make it a wonderful contemporary domestic novel. Henkin tells his tale with the assurance and maturity of a seasoned writer; he has been teaching writing for many years and heads the MFA program at Brooklyn College.

Click photo to download. Caption: Joshua Henkin. Credit: Matthew Polis.

The story is told from the variety of perspectives. In fact, one of the novel’s most notable achievements is its mastery of a variety of points of view—from those one of the young Israeli nephew wanting only to enjoy the glories of America and NBA basketball games; the dead son Leo, evoked so carefully in the recollections of the family who loved him; and the fabulously wealthy 94-year-old grandmother who can use her riches to control almost any aspect of the family life.

In a recent phone interview with JointMedia News Service, Henkin said that he was currently reading David Grossman’s To the End of the Land—having waited until he finished his own book to read another about two grieving parents and how they acknowledge the reality of their son’s death. Though Grossman is a fine writer, To the End of the Land is a book that was extremely painful to read. While dealing with a sad topic, The World Without You manages to shy away from the sustained bleakness one might assume would inhere in a book about the untimely death of a young man. 

For Jewish readers, one of the many pleasures in Henkin’s book is the role of the ba’alat teshuvah daughter, Noelle, in the family’s life. She holds a central key to the family’s remembrances, since she was the last one to see Leo alive and may carry a message from him to his widow. Henkin writes of this: “K’heref ayin. Like the blink of an eye. The whole world is like that for God. And, for a moment, Noelle feels like God herself. The last one to see her brother alive.” 

Noelle has many struggles in her life, but aspects of her religious life bring comfort both to her and her family. She is the only family member able to recite the kaddish for her brother at his memorial service. It is her speech at the memorial service that is memorable and affecting. As an Israeli and ba’alat teshuvah, Noelle’s politics are at odds with the liberal and secular Upper West Side Jews she grew up with. Part of the novel’s charm is watching characters like Noelle negotiate their many differences. 

Educated at the Ramaz high school in New York, the Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan for his MFA, Henkin has a wide range of influences on his writing. This character-driven novel takes place in the domestic space of a summer home, yet has concerns with domestic politics (family members contain lawyers and activists who went to Florida to help with the 2000 presidential vote count) as well as international ones, in the lives of the dead journalist son (Leo) and Israeli daughter (Noelle).

Full of careful details, humor and well-limned characters, the book does a good job of describing the ways families connect and pull apart in moments of crisis. Noelle says at one point, “Wasn’t Leo’s death supposed to bring us together?” In this novel, clearly Henkin’s finest work, readers are treated to a chance to see whether or not that is possible in the face of tragedy.  

Posted on May 20, 2012 and filed under Book Review, Jewish Life, Opinion.