Thursday, March 19, 2015

A liberating understanding of grief: Stephanie Dowrick on The Rules of Inheritance

Can there be anything more difficult to experience - or write about - than profound grief?  I'd say not. It was the theme of my own first novel, Running Backwards Over Sand. It is also, and more directly, the theme of Claire Bidwell Smith's immensely accomplished memoir, The Rules of Inheritance. In this book she writes not just about the death of one parent, relatively early in life, but two. An only child of her parents' devoted marriage, her "aloneness" is overwhelming. It is the aloneness of loss; it is also the very specific gnawing isolation of seemingly everlasting grief.

Smith uses a non-linear but highly persuasive structure to tell her story of love, regret, shame, tenacity, foolishness, courage and insight. In less skilled hands, this could be distracting. Smith, though, is a natural story-teller. We can trust her as a writer in ways she clearly did not trust herself for many years. Her long, winding, patchy road to living fruitfully and positively is immensely recognizable in its very patchiness and her structure - which is totally within her command - supports this. Comprehension, awareness, an increase in consciousness: these all take time, commitment and a surrender to story in the deepest meaning of that word.

How do we contract, expand; construct, destruct; investigate, know? None of this is achieved through the conscious mind only which is in part why an account of grief as accomplished and as persistent as Smith's will be of such value to so many readers. "There isn't a right way to grieve," she writes. And, soon after, "But if you haven't been through a major loss, the the truth is that you just don't know what to say to someone who has." Grief takes one to a different country. Abandoned there - not least by the absence of the person or people you are grieving - many of us behave in ways that may later shame us. Recklessness is often part of a grief story, especially among the young. It was certainly part of my own story and in Smith's persistence with dangerously unhealthy relationships, and the depression that never cleared even while she studied, worked, lived and even loved, many readers will see themselves.

Here is a writer forced by the depth of her intelligence as well as her losses to understand not just her own grief, but grief itself. That understanding is of real service to us all, to all who are brave enough to love know and not avoid knowing that death is part of love as well as essential to physical existence.

I am filing this review from my iPad, with all the restrictions of this otherwise handy little tablet. I will add images when back at my desk (now done!). But my message is clear. I am moved by this book. I am deeply moved  by the author's hard won insights and the depth of her commitment in bringing them to the page. My impulse to write this review before returning to my office in a couple of weeks is two-fold. Perhaps it is the very book that will be the companion you need; it is a companion. And also, and more personally, I have been thinking a great deal about my Writers' Workshop class of 2014, some of whom are newly engaged in deep memoir writing. There is, for them and other writers, much to gain and learn here about the "piecing" together of anyone's story. In that, and in so many other ways, The Rules of Inheritance opens up for us some of the...not rules, but experiences that enable healing, connection, understanding. It is always Claire's story; in its depth and breadth of emotion and enquiry, it is - in moments and parts enough - also ours.

Claire Bidwell Smith

About the reviewer
Dr Stephanie Dowrick is the author of many books including Seeking the Sacred and Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love. She teaches writing for the Faber Writing Academy in Sydney and co-hosts this Book Club. You can comment on her public Facebook page, or follow her there for inspirational teachings.  The Rules of Inheritance is available POSTAGE FREE from this LINK.

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