Books

The Anatomy Of Grief

Joan Didion “sits down to dinner” on the evening of December 30, 2003, and life as she knows it, ends.

Her husband of 40 years, John Geoffrey Dunne, dies of a sudden, massive cardiac arrest on their dinner table, in mid-speech, at a time when their daughter, Quintana, was lying unconscious in an I.C.U. bed.

Concealed in the book’s cover art is her husband’s name, John.

In her attempt to cope with her enormous loss, in the year that follows, Didion meticulously deconstructed the sequence of events that led to it. These, she captured in her deeply poignant book, “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

In putting the clock backwards, as it were, she goes into such minute and graphical clinical details as the degree of the occlusion of his coronary arteries, the chemical names and the precise doze of the life-saving drugs injected by the E.M.S. crew to resuscitate his failed organs, and the time of pronouncement of his death.

In furnishing these pieces of piercing information, she consulted a motley assortment of poetry, medical journals, post-mortem reports, doctors’ accounts.

“Information was control,” she’d known all along, but it when it came to it, she realized, she couldn’t control the outcome of life, she writes.

It’s her photo-realistic clarity, her anatomical dissection of her anguish, done with a pointed lexical scalpel that, at times, renders the narrative too heart-wrenching, even psychologically disturbing, to read through.

What she describes as her “magical thinking,” is, in essence, an irrational belief that took hold of her in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s demise, but which, ironically, manifested itself, on the surface, as a calm, rational behavior.

While to the outside world, she was being the “cool customer,” she had, on the inside, all but taken leave of the power of logical reasoning.

She’d sanctioned his autopsy, convinced it would unearth the cause of his ailment, as possibly “something simple,” and that it’d enable doctors to fix the problem, and bring him back to life. “How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes,” she writes.

Throughout the book, but more so in the later half, she journeys back and forth between her recollection of the harrowing moments immediately preceding the tragedy and the happy distant memories of her time with Mr. Dunne and their girl, together.

All in all, it’s not a book for the faint of heart.

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