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Nona Caspers The Fifth Woman (Sarabande Books) is what Amy Hempel must have meant by “fluent…in the language of grief.” In twenty three connected exquisite moments (or stories) the novel constructs a map of loss, its creative potential, its capacity to tear open the world, trouble boundaries, and dust the daily with wonder. In The Fifth Woman, grief is queer-as-in-odd, as in boundary-blurring, as in otherways loving, as in curious: Shadows come to life, dead deer talk back, a person you know is dead or fictional or both feels realer than anyone you’ve ever loved. To visit this narrator’s grief, a world cracked open by absence, is to find a different way of seeing.
The missing woman is Michelle, the narrator’s dead lover. She haunts the novel in details, alive in particulars that only someone trying to remember someone they loved could write:
She was a confident chewer…in the night, she’d reach over and rest her hand on the top of my head, sometimes give it a little shake. What did she want from me? What are the things that matter?
[…] Michelle also had remarkable hands. I’d watch her rifle through a drawer, her long fingers like antennae.
Caspers’ descriptions of Michelle are so specifically odd, they become universal. Maybe you couldn’t pick Michelle or her grieving lover out of a crowd, maybe you couldn’t love her, like her even, but reading these descriptions, you understand something about what it is to love someone who is gone. The narrator remains, with questions: what to remember, where are we going, why to hunt, why to live, who was the lost and then who was the person who used to love her, in this way that grief + time makes ghosts of all of us: “where is the memory I used to be?”
The Fifth Woman, is shaped like mourning, which is to say that the narrative goes on in the Beckettian sense, every day standing on its own, making its own kind of sense of the world, illuminated by small miraculous quotidian: a shadow shaped like a dog, a too-muchness of ants, people singing together, silence. The novel follows the narrator from the moment of Michelle’s death to a time years later when both Michelle and the narrator who loved her are memories. It also circles Michelle, her body, her absence. Sometimes the novel’s loneliness is so rich, it reads like a mystery to which we keep discovering clues: fragments of letters, a strange face in the mirror, offering hands, a growing crack, as if answers or Michelle or even Jesus might walk out at any moment and explain what’s going on, and how it is that a person can just be gone, and what to do about it.
You come to this book for solace, or solitude. You come because you’ve lost someone (who hasn’t?) or came recently far too close to loss to forget the strangeness of that event horizon light. You come to laugh and almost cry at moments so odd you thought you were completely alone, like “The Ocean” which offers the truest (and strangest) rendering of the life-clinging joy of grief I have ever read; like “The Ravine,” which might save you if you are in the deer gutting business, or the writing business, or the business of being vulnerable.
You come to The Fifth Woman to remember why it is that you make words or stories or art, and the closeness of the creativity of grief to the process of art, as Kevin Young wrote in his introduction to The Art of Losing, “In a way, the process of grief, I have found, can mirror that of writing: it is surprising, trying, frustrating, daunting, terrifying, comforting, chastening, challenging, and at times, heartening.” “The Ravine,” and “The Horse” and other moments in this book ask what art can do. The answer is either not much, or everything, depending on how you read the ending of “The Horse” (I was pounding the table).
You come to this book to fall back in love with all language or grief can do: bring the dead close, call Jesus, and bring your mother to town–even though you know that this is only what language can do to language. It’s not enough and it’s everything all at the same time. You read this novel for a reminder of the magic of deep grief or writing, how it can change weather, collapse distances, allow time travel, make you fall in love.
You come to ask, like the narrator, the questions of those of us staying on: “What kind of suffering are we off to? What kind of joy?
You finish it and then you turn back to the front page and begin again. You need a book, like this one, that reminds you of what your own lost love once told you, that everything can be written about, and because it explores so clearly the stage, the smoke, and the mirrors of this two-bit magic trick of existence: a person is here and then they are gone. To grasp that, to catch grief, you’d have to open your eyes so wide that everything, ants, light, cracks, neighbors, the living and the dead, would come into the clearest focus–you feel like you could understand almost anything in that moment, and it would be the strangest thing you’ll ever see.
The Fifth Woman
By Nona Caspers
Paperback, 9781946448170, 160 pp.