Of course, the cover was the first thing I noticed, uncluttered with a picture of a small table and a single chair with a parrot on the back. I picked it up and read the back blurb. The story is set in Canada. I find a book extra enjoyable when the references are one’s I am familiar with. A book set in the UK may refer to the High Street. One taking place in the US may refer to Applebee’s. I know the High Street is the main shopping avenue of a town or village. I know Applebee’s is a restaurant chain , but I haven’t experienced those places the way I have Tim Horton’s or Loblaw’s.
The subject of the story also intrigued me. A group of strangers meet in response to a notice on a bulletin board (the physical kind not on facebook) to talk about grief. Since I’m missing casual connections just now, I thought a story about strangers getting to know one another would be entertaining. The topic of grief seems apropos as well since our whole world is grieving. Perhaps we haven’t lost a loved one, but we’ve all lost the life we used to know.
Finally, Ms Itani has won several literary awards, that sealed the deal for me. I carried the book to the cashier.
I was not disappointed. Each of these strangers has a unique story of loss, a spouse (good or bad), a parent, a friend . . . Yet grief doesn’t figure much in their discussions. Having lost the person closest to them, they mostly, want to talk and they want someone to listen. The stories aren’t so much about grieving as they are about living. There are also secrets. The lost relationships had a public face and a private face. It’s that private aspect of the lost relative that colours the way the bereaved live the rest of their lives. As a bonus, the woman who placed the notice is a word aficionado. Her thoughts are sprinkled with the etymology of the words she uses. A quirk that enlivens her character and amuses me as the reader.
As the group gathers, they begin to think of themselves as a company. A place where judgement is withheld and trust is formed. Shameful secrets are exposed and forgiven. Hurtful relationships are explored without censure. Sympathy is free and abundant. Help with practical things like moving furniture is readily offered.
A book with grief at its core sounds sad, but it is not. It is hopeful. The characters clear out the troubles from their old lives then prepare to live again. They turn to a clean page for the last chapters of their lives.
I wonder if we can look a 2020 that way. The year that was mostly a void in our lives can be viewed as a resetting point. When society opens up, when we’re ready to hold hands with our friends and high-five a stranger can we take the lessons of isolation into a hopeful future? Having cast off so many activities, can we re-engage in a thoughtful way? Do all those clubs nurture us or are some a waste of time? Are all our previous relationships healthy or were some toxic?
We’re not out of the woods yet. Billions of people still need to be vaccinated. We may need to get a booster shot every year. We may need to keep our groups small for a while longer. But light glimmers on the horizon. As we prepare to pick up the dropped threads of life we might like to consider “the company we keep.”