It seems wrong to dwell on the death of mothers in fiction in the lead up to Mother’s Day, but that is what has been on my mind and my bedside table lately. I recently finished reading Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak, in which the mother, Penelope, dies a long and painful death. Her boys are left behind to care from themselves after they are abandoned by a distraught father.
Both as the mother of a son, and as a daughter, the story was difficult to read as it explored the response of the five boys to the news of their mother’s illness and impending death, and her final departure.
What was particularly touching was the point where Penelope took each of the boys for a day out on their own, one to the museum, another to a movie. Zusak wrote: “You know your mother’s dying when she takes you out individually.”
The book is full of tenderness towards the mother, highlighting her humour in the face of death, when her illness made her skin papery and her body wasted. It is as if Zusak is holding on tightly to the beauty of the mother – showing the reader all that the boys had lost.
Similarly, the death of the mother is a pivotal point in The Eye of the Sheep. The start of the book delves into the relationship and dependency between a mother and her son. Sofie Laguna builds a warm and tender relationship that is full of humour, with the mother protecting her son from a violent father. The tragedy of the mother’s death lies not only in the boy’s loss and his helplessness without her, but also in the mother’s grief at leaving her child to such helplessness. As if prophesising her death, she says, “Oh, Jimmy, what will become of you if something happens to me?”
While it is terribly sad to read of death in literature, for me these stories are a stark reminder of the beauty and importance of motherhood. In times when I’m exhausted from pulling apart fights between my children or repeatedly telling them to clean up their rooms or put their shoes away, a small part of me remembers what I have before me.
Maybe this is the reason why I love a book that makes me cry about loss and mortality – it is a reminder of the value of the here and now; of the fleeting time we all have together and the luxury of health. Rather than being solely an emotional pull, it is also a tap on the shoulder to take care and pay attention. Tear-jerking literature reminds us of what is important, of beautiful friendship and of lost love.
The Kite Runner tells a heartbreaking story of boyhood friends who lose each other after other boys commit a terrible crime against one of them. From the perspective of the reader, it is awful to see not just what has happened, but also the inability of one of the boys to remain friends with the victim due to the shame of witnessing the crime, and at failing to intervene. It is a perspective that offers the reader access to the truth of how damaging shame can be, and how wasteful a reason to let go of a friendship.
In The Book Thief, the death of Leisel’s young friend of is one of many losses, yet it hits particularly hard, given the friendship that had developed between the two, and their dependence in such destructive times. What seems to be a simple friendship becomes much more once lost. In The Little Paris Bookshop, the long-ago loss of Monsieur Perdu’s great love becomes all the sadder when the reader learns the reason for her departure.
While reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I had to pause to watch my children sleeping or give them a hug on multiple occasions as I was struck by the sadness of the death of the child, which was central to the story. Living in different times, virtually in different worlds, it was a stark reminder of the gift of motherhood, and the safety and freedom that I take for granted.
As a child, one of the most memorable books I read was one of the saddest – Bridge to Terabithia. I still count it as one of my favourites for its evocation of friendship and of loss. Another was I Came Back to Show You I Could Fly. And can any child forget the death of Matthew in Anne of Green Gables? Through sadness and loss, each highlighted the power of love and friendship.
Whether it is the mother of all losses, the breakdown of a friendship or the death of a loved one, sadness in literature gives us insight into what we have to lose, and at the same time, highlight what we have.