Claire Donato’s novel, Burial, is about the inward death that accompanies the death of a loved one. I say it is “about,” but really, being “about” something implies an organization of plot or meaning, or at least a semblance of sequence toward character growth. But I won’t accuse this book of being any of that. It feels less like a fabricated story “about” grief than the very frozen ecosystem of grief itself. It has the weight of clouds, muted colors, and the inconvenience of weather.
The last thing I want to be is melodramatic, but, really, honestly, the book itself is cold to the touch; and carrying it around isn’t easy. It takes energy and effort just to lift it from the rustic desk in your study, and the second you place it in your book bag, it is like placing the weight of frosty wind or the dead weight of a frozen lake over your shoulder… Except, at the same time, it is nothing like that at all.
Donato’s grief-scape is not at all dramatic like my description of it. It does not overreach or embellish. It is not a loud, awe-inspiring storm of detail. Instead, it is pedestrian, numb, and quiet most of the time; which, of course, is exactly what grief is.
Greif. Grief is common. Okay, maybe the grief of losing a loved one isn’t as common as being an everyday occurrence (thank God), but it is a state of being for the everyman. Like the narrator who has just lost her father, surely we have “check[ed] into the morgue,” with the weight of our very own “bright yellow suitcase,” (13); surely we have been in moments where what we have or bring with us into the moment doesn’t quite fit the mood of where we are. Our happy, bright world makes its intrusion of convenience, because no one really buys things like suitcases with death in mind.
Like the narrator, we try our best to do and be what people do and are in these moments. We check into hotels, and because we have seemingly all the time in the world, and because we paid for it, we walk down to the pool, we “suit up,” and “dive into water;” while there, we “feel guilt, mostly,” or we don’t, and we just “feel grief,” (18). In the water we make observations about the things inside us, and we say to ourselves things like “guilt is the color of sand, and grief is the color of water. Father had piercing blue eyes; his eyes were the color of grief. And the swimming bath’s grief is bright blue,” (18). Everything becomes a whole because nothing we say, or think, or feel is quite whole.
While immersed in grief, the people we observe seem to be stuck in the most bizarre of actions, like the groundskeeper “carry[ing] a bright yellow bucket, wip[ing] the floor on her knees;” strange because “the floor is carpet,” (22). We ponder the strangeness of wiping down carpet because in the very same moment, our “body remains disconnected from itself, invalidating the mind, which lacks logic” (26).
Donato’s grief-scape lacks logic and familiarity. And I would be lying to you if I told you that the book was a wonderful reading experience. At ninety pages, it should have been a book one reads in one sitting; but really, it is hard and obtuse, and reading it was a struggle. This is because Donato finds a way to make her words and the world unfamiliar. Donato’s narrative threw me out into the cold constantly, it pushed me further into my own mind, my own struggles and grief, and further into the coffee shop conversations of the morgue around me. I read it in small pieces, breaking the small chapters into even smaller crumbs… this is because, while in grief, even something as simple as eating reading is belabored.
I’ve never been as distracted or as anxious as I’ve been while reading Donato’s Burial. And I credit it all to her mastery; everywhere becomes a burial until the funeral is over.
Buy the book here: https://tarpaulinsky.com/claire-donato/burial/
Goodreads reviews here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17723862-burial?from_search=true#other_reviews