Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Grieving and Loving: Sarina Bowen's KEEPSAKE and Alexis Hall's PANSIES

Mourning and falling in love would appear to be at the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum: the blissful highs of connecting intimately with another, the tearful, angry lows of an intimacy no longer possible. Yet both grief and love break down emotional defenses, leaving you achingly open and vulnerable. When grief comes first, several recent romance novels suggest, it can plough the untilled field, readying one for the planting of the seeds of romantic love.

In my book, the best grief/love stories are not the ones in which a new love magically heals the hurt the death of a loved one has inflicted. They are the ones in which the possibility of romantic connection with another helps one, or often two, grieving people find a path through the pain of loss.

In Sarina Bowen's Keepsake, the third book of her Truth North series, the grieving protagonist is Lark, a once fearless risktaker who is spending time on a Vermont farm recovering from being kidnapped while on a twelve-month assignment for her job with a NGO in Guatemala. Lark grieves not only for her lost sense of invincibility ("Back then I'd thought that bad experiences only made for good stories" [Kindle Loc 848]), but for one of her kidnappers, a young boy who was killed during her rescue. Lark smiles and acts "normal," determined to defeat her jumpiness, her illogical fear. But while her conscious brain knows she's safe on her best friend's rural family farm, at night, the "dragons in my heart," shake their chains and roar—in the form of scream-inducing nightmares, nightmares that jerk the male farmhands from their own dreams in the bunkhouse they all share.

It is Zach, the most cautious of the farmworkers, who takes it upon himself to help Lark through her night terrors, shaking her awake, or soothing her with his voice and with his touch when the nightmares return. Zach, too, has shouldered his share of grief, losing his family and his community after being kicked out of the polygamous religious group in which he was born and raised when he was just a teen. Diligent, quiet, feeling not quite part of the tight-knit family community at the Shipley farm, Zach knows what it is like to feel apart, to live "in the bunkhouse of life": "annexed to the farm. It was a part of it, but only in a casual way. Off to the side. Not quite independent" (452). As Lark and Zach begin to share small details of their losses, their shame, their guilt, feelings they have never shared with anyone else, emotional intimacy cannot help but follow.

But Zach has had a lot more time to deal with his grief than Lark has, and even his burgeoning love for her cannot "fix" her PTSD, no matter how hard he wishes it could. Each has to learn that "everyone has a time when they need a lot more than they can give" (3805) and that that need cannot always be filled by one person, no matter how much love that person holds.

Like Lark, Alexis Hall's Alfie Bell, the narrator of Pansies (book #4 in his Spires series), is also mourning a lost sense of self. But that self was not wrenched away by another, but by his own sexual desires. Born and raised in working class northern England, Alfie grew up believing that men want women, and that "There's not, like, space for that stuff [being gay] up there" (909). Moving to London, working as an investment banker, and discovering that he's attracted to men after twenty-eight years of assuming he was straight is wrenching, particularly since casual homophobia had been such a large part of what it meant to be a man back home ("Alfie tried to ignore the flicker of discomfort that he noticed these things. That he was a man who found bits of other men provocative" [274]). Going back home to South Shields and accidentally outing himself at a friend's wedding (the book's opening scene) is deeply upsetting: "But now he was back up north, it was starting to feel like he'd become, somehow, less than himself. Sort of a sketch. Just blunt lines and the basics. What a fucking joke. Not north, not south. A straight gay man" (386).

Alfie, who is not the most introspective of fellows, flees the wedding to drown his sorrows at a local bar. Where, to his surprise, he ends up hooking up with a small, prickly, unbelievably pretty man. A man who, it turns out, is the same boy Alfie bullied unmercifully during their school days, teasing and tormenting him for his obvious homosexuality:

     Faggot. Puff. Sissy. Pansy. Fairy. Fudgepacker. Cocksucker.
     His hands tingled suddenly. Remembering Fen across the years. Holding him down. It had all been petty. Small hurts. Humiliations. But relentless. And heedless. A habit. (6256)

Though Alfie, in his inept way, tries to apologize for his past behavior, he keeps stumbling over his own internalized homophobia to be convincing:

     "Okay, forget that. I'm sorry. Just sorry. But it was a long time ago. I'm not the same person."
     "Oh, right, yes. Because you're gay now and you feel all sad about it."
     Alfie's mouth dropped open. He knew his sense of betrayal was probably out of proportion. But it was like he'd shown his belly in a moment of weakness and Fen had responded by ripping his guts out.
     Before he could muster any sort of answer, Fen had torn right on. "You think you have it rough? Try growing up queer in a place like this."
     "I did grow up gay. I just didn't know it like."
     "Well, it didn't stop you making my life miserable."
     Alfie was still feeling too unexpectedly wounded to be capable of controlling what came out of his mouth. "Yeah, but you didn't exactly help yourself either."
     Silence. Again.
     "What," asked Fen very quietly, "the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
     "I mean, you could have kept your head down. You didn't have to make a big deal about it." (6256)

Needless to say, Fen and Alfie do not part on good terms. But back in London, Alfie can't keep the memories of his time with Fen, or the guilt Fen's revelations have forced on him, out of his mind. And so Alfie sets off to try and make things better, to try and recapture some of the loveliness of being with Fen before Fen told him who he was, who they were, back when they were kids.

But Fen, too, is grieving, not a loss of identity but a loss of family. And just like Zach with Lark, Alfie wants to fix Fen, wants to take on the burden of Fen's losses for him. But "wanting to help isn't the same as wanting to fix" (3122), a lesson Alfie consciously understands, but one which takes a long time to really know, down deep where it matters. Alfie and Fen can mourn together, but ultimately each has to come to terms with his own griefs, his own losses, before either can begin to imagine a life that includes the possibility of happiness, and love, together.

Photo credits:
Vermont Farm: Farm to Fork Fondo
Pansy Party by Wendy Westlake: Fine Art America




  1. I just finished listening to _Keepsake_, and thought it excellent. But I was a little troubled by feeling that, like the heroine in _The Shameless Hour_, Lark was being punished in the story for her "wildness." (I haven't actually read TSH yet, so I'm relying on other's comments here.) What do you think?

    1. A really important question, Willaful, and one that crossed my mind when I was reading KEEPSAKE (not so much in TSH). For me, it comes down to, WHEN in the narrative is the punishment being doled out? And does it still feel like the character is being punished at story's end? Is the ultimate message to the reader "don't act this way or YOU will be punished, just like this character"? Or is it "this particular person had a bad thing happen to her, and I want YOU to admire her/sympathize with her for the way she deals with it?"

      In KEEPSAKE, the "punishment" happened before the story started, and the story itself was about the recovery from the trauma. Lark doesn't return to the "I am invincible" person she was before the attack, granted. But the narrative casts that lesson as one of maturity (one that all teens, not just girls, need to learn), rather than a lesson that reduces Lark, cuts her down in a misogynistic way. At least that's the feeling I get.

      THE SHAMELESS HOUR is even less about punishing a girl for her wildness, I feel. It's more about how society, and other people, too often to punish and blame young women for their sexual freedom.

    2. I guess I'll have to wait til I've read TSH before I know whether I agree. It probably wouldn't have occurred to me here if I hadn't remembered the commentary on that.

    3. Come back and let me know what you think after you've read TSH!

  2. Just commenting again because I forgot to subscribe.