What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

Writing: 5 characters: 3 Plot: 3

New word for me: tik – crystal meth

A loose collection of thoughts and reflections organized into a set of short, sparse, chapters with the ghostly outline of a plot, this book reads more like a memoir than a novel. Told in the first person, the central theme is loss – specifically the loss of Thandi’s mother to cancer. Many of the vignettes circle around the mechanics of her mother’s death as well as how she feels before, during, and after, and the impact on her own feelings of motherhood.

Clemmons writing style is beautiful, poetic, but somehow dispassionate. Even though she wrote of painful topics, I wasn’t able to feel them. Several sections are reflections on politics or race. These are interesting because they are specific stories pulled from an infinitude of possible tales, that meant something to our narrator at that time and place. This is very much a personal, rather than complete, account of the topics covered.

I found some of her thoughts disturbing – as an example, while her mother was dying Thandi was afraid her father would leave because “that was always the fear with men”. Similarly, her mother had always taught her to keep money hidden from a husband just in case – and in fact when she dies, Thandi and her father find that she has squirreled away quite a fortune. It is eye-opening, and a little depressing to me, to read of this kind of attitude without seeing the character develop into having more positive thoughts about men, for example (her father does stay by his wife’s side right until the end, by the way).

Overall, I didn’t really enjoy this book though I appreciate the opportunity to get a glimpse inside a mind that is very different to my own. The writing is absolutely beautiful, but the structure is disjointed (very like a day-to-day set of thoughts without the organizing arrangement inherent in a typical novel), and I had difficulty empathizing with such a dispassionate and aloof narrator.

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