Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Dark Oval Stone by Marsena Konkle

When her husband drops dead of a heart attack in their neighbor's driveway, the main character of this novel must create a new life for herself as a sudden widow. It doesn't help that she's pregnant.
As she goes about deciding whether or not to keep her baby, whether or not to keep her house, whether or not to join a support group, something about this narrative just doesn't resonate. Despite, or maybe because of, the first person narration, I just did not feel the character's grief. Maybe I just didn't trust her the way I would trust an omniscient narrator. When someone reports their own feelings, I question it. When someone else's feelings are reported, it feels as if the feelings are witnessed through a peephole; there is that voyeur's satisfaction of having seen it for yourself, much more having seen something at its most raw and real, when defenses aren't up for the benefit of others. Also, with omniscient, there seems to be a lot more room for description of the main character in a way that the main character would not describe herself.
For example:
"I was so angry, I tore off my ring and threw it across the room." versus
"Her face reddening as she tugged, the widow was so angry she tore off her ring and threw it across the room."
In any case, the novel was a decent read, yet left me feeling empty, as if I hadn't really experienced any emotion at all. Perhaps, though, that was the point. Who am I to say what a young widow might feel, or not feel?
The fact remains that I like nearly every other character except for the character whose perspective I was presented. She seemed unaffected by her husband's death, beyond, that is, the bother of a baby. Her actions thereafter seem hollow, not in the mechanical way that a grief-stricken wife might perform tasks in a stupor simply to survive, but truly shallow.
Even the novel's namesake, a dark oval stone that appears past the halfway mark, is empty of meaning, thus truly, it turns out, a symbol for the entire novel.
There are a few scenes where the wife seems to remember her husband in some semi-substantial way, but, more than anything, she seems to be all too ready to give away her husband's presense, from his clothes to his morals, eager to rub off his mark.
Again, I have never lost my spouse (don't have a spouse), so cannot really imagine that process afterwards, yet I have to say that I truly did not like this main character.
I must also say that I consider myself a feminist, and do not believe that a woman's entire world should be wrapped up in "her man," or any other human being for that matter, but, ultimately, when an assumed loved one dies, I do expect some degree of falling apart. I don't expect, for example, that person to sell their loved one's clothes, their shared house, give away their car, at least not without some serious display of emotion, confusion, conflict.
That's it! That's what was lacking in this piece. Beyond the unacceptable (nil) level of grief, there was very little conflict, very little push and pull on this character. She seemed to slice through her husband's death, even the more difficult decisions it presented, like a warm knife through room-temperature butter, bothered some, but not much.
Someone read this and tell me I'm wrong.


Jason Gignac said...

That's an interesting thought, but I'm mystified as to whether I agree with it. Now, understanding, I've never read teh book - do you think it's abnormal for someone to want to get rid fo all reminders of a dead husband, etc? I know, from a literary standpoint, the imagineation tends more toward the ol' 'and we've kept her room just as she left it the night she had the accident, all these many years' school of grief, and that's certainly a real way to grieve, don't get me wrong. But I can imagine the opposite, too - the numbness that becomes emotional brusqueness, the both conscious and unconscious desire to just get rid of everything, and be done with it, etc. Irritation is easier to feel than grief, and the human mind has a remarkable tendency to transmogrify one emotion into another. I remember, in fact, when my grandfather died, being embarrased taht I COULDN'T feel upset. When Amanda's grandfather died, she was weepy and upset for days, despite him not really, while I knew her, really being a big part of our life. He'd been only semi-conscious for many years. But, she understood what it meant, I suppose, to die, and so she had the blessing of being able to feel it. Many people, I think don't have that, or choose not to have that option. Like in Emily Dickinson, 1078:

The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away

One critic I read, pointed out that a wife in Emily Dickinson's time simply did not have time to grievem, and her way of mourning was to comfort the mourning of others by making sure the household continues as normal. Perhaps the woman in the book just didn't have the luxury to feel, and so avoided the neccesity. I don't know. And I suppose, then again, just because the feeling is plausible doesn't mean it necessarily makes a good book :D

Amanda said...

I have to disagree with you a bit, Jase. With my grandfather, it was weird because, like with all tragicness in my life, I react in denial. I thought my grief and sadness was fake, staged, surreal. Thankfully, I knew by that time it was a defense mechanism to think that, so I didn't worry so much and knew that they were real tears.

Anyway, speaking of my grandfather, there were members of the family who refused to have anything to do with him in those years of declining health, though they loved him, and some members who stayed with him practically 24-7. I think this is sort of parallel to the idea of how we mourn after death. Some people, rather than getting weepy, go crazy after death. They get rid of stuff, they want to erase the memory, they throw huge parties and become promiscuous (sp), they do all sorts of stupid, crazy things. So I don't think it's a measure of how someone reacts to death that is really the issue - I think the issue is how the author wrote it. If they didn't write that rejection of everything realistically, it's not going to be very sympathetic or relateable.

This book is intriguing to me, not just because of that debate, but because for some reason, I think I've heard the exact same argument applied to this exact same book elsewhere. I'm not sure where. Even the telling vs. showing writing-style that you mention. I don't know where it was, but you're not alone, Amber.

Jason Gignac said...

But,I guess what I'm saying is that it's not just that the reactions can be different, it's that they can differ in outward, even inward, intensity, and it doesn't really have any relation to the love you felt for the person. One can feel very crisp and impartial and business like, paradoxically, BECAUSE the death of aloved one means so much to them.

Amanda said...

Yes, I know - and that would be extremely difficult to write, from first person or third, and the author would have to do an amazing job to get it across realistically.

Amber said...

Yeah, I felt a bit guilty for slamming this book just because I never have lost a spouse, or even someone that close to me. The closest I've come is losing a mentor from college.
I don't think I'm arguing that the main character should have felt; I would allow for the range of emotion that includes non-emotion, but I do wish and think that it would have been really beautiful and profound if the author had dealt with the non-emotion in a direct way. She definitly presented non-emotion, but she didn't recognize and deal with the fact that that was what she was presenting. What I mean is, the character never did any (or much of) the "Why am I not crying?" thing. There was no analysis. I'm a Virgo; I want analysis, damn it! ha. ha.
Emily Dickinson did perfectly in those four lines what this author failed to do.
And Yay!, I'm glad I'm not alone!

Jason Gignac said...

Yeah, that's why she's Emily Dickinson :).