Books featuring children don’t feature highly on The Novels I Have Read list, and books featuring children coping with grief are similarly low on my To Be Read pile.
So it was a surprise to enjoy two books which both have young girls as their central character and grief as the main premise.
And if it seems odd to enjoy books about grief, let me add that although there were moments of touching sadness in both novels, there was also wisdom and humour. It seems there is much to be learned about grief, love and life – by adults as well as by children.
Anita Shreve’s Light on Snow features 12-year-old Nicky Dillon dealing with the aftermath of the death of her mother and younger sister, and Fredrik Backman’s My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologises, features seven-year-old Elsa whose beloved grandmother has just died.
Both books focus on family and what constitutes family life when the worst happens. And both stories are seen through the eyes of the young protagonists in a way that exposes their vulnerability, but also a new-found strength.
Light on Snow opens with the daily rituals performed by Nicky and her father. The pair have retreated from a busy city life to a remote wooded home in New Hampshire to live in isolation, loneliness and grief.
But they are forced to re-evaluate their lives when they find an abandoned baby in the woods. And when an unexpected visitor turns up at their house, all the sureties they had about the choices they have made are exposed and questioned.
Shreve’s writing style is as crystalline as the icy snow falling outside. She captures sound and silence:
The stillness of the forest is always a surprise, as if an audience had quieted for a performance…
She captures grief:
My grief, which I could not articulate beyond a string of helpless words within an open-mouthed wail, showed itself as the days wore on, in short, violent squalls.
My father’s grief was not as dramatic as mine, but instead was resolute, an entity with weight.
And despite the underlying horror of what’s happened, there is surprising humour. Told through Nicky’s eyes, the little girl delivers comments and observations that I found so delicious, I had to read them more than once.
Asked to give his phone number, Nicky’s father goes into another room to fetch pen and paper. Nicky thinks: ‘This ought to be good.’ Later she asks her father: ‘What did you write?’
‘Just a number,’ he says.
‘No idea,’ he says.
Fredrik Backman’s Elsa delivers similar off-the-cuff, but hugely knowing, observations:
Elsa knows she is different… adults describe her as “very grown up for her age”. Elsa knows this is just another way of saying “massively annoying for her age,” because they only tend to say this when she corrects them for mispronouncing “déjà vu” or not being able to tell the difference between “me” and “I” at the end of a sentence.
It seems that Elsa’s eccentric grandmother is the only person who understands the little girl, taking her off to imaginary lands and introducing her to magical creatures through storytelling.
And when she dies, Granny leaves Elsa a mysterious series of letters apologising to those she claims to have wronged in some way. And those she has wronged turn out to be people that Elsa already knows, but has never understood until now because they, in their own ways, are ‘different’ too.
Granny’s stories come to life as Elsa undertakes her challenge – a mission that eventually comforts and heals, and shows that ‘if a sufficient number of people are different, no one has to be normal’.
A delightful and thought-provoking read from the author of A Man Called Ove, and firmly in league with some of the best writers whose books feature children.