Reviewed by Andy Stewart
An elderly man wakes to find his wife in the throes of a seizure. She falls into a coma. The husband sits by her bedside in the hospital, caring for her, waiting -- pleading -- for her to wake. Rare moments of hope are overshadowed by moments of despair as the story progresses toward an inevitably somber end.
Without hyperbole, Michael Kimball's Us is one of the saddest books you'll ever read.
It's not just the subject matter -- the mourning spouse trope certainly isn't a rarity in literature. But there's something incredibly raw and unabashedly real in how Kimball approaches this subject, and much of his success is due to technique. The narrator's painfully accurate attention to detail not only makes the everyday world unique and specific to Kimball's vision, but also serves to slow time to an absolute crawl. We occupy the same space as the fearful and grieving husband, and we see the meaning in every moment that would otherwise be fleeting.
In a manner more commonly found in poetry, Kimball's use of detail and repetition accumulates, building tension; the sequence "They came inside our house...They banged their way through...They set everything that they had with them down...They rolled her over...They pulled the gurney blanket up to her neck to cover her up, but they left her arms out" is followed up by a simple, resonant observation: "It looked as if she were holding them out to me." Here we have a release of that built-up tension, and a haunting image that lingers. Moments like these give the work a forward momentum, and ultimately transform an otherwise quiet, introspective novel into a page-turner.
Kimball also displays a mastery of tone and language. The narrator in Us experiences some of the most intense emotional moments a person could endure, and yet uncomplicated language presented matter-of-factly results in little to no emotion being expressed by him. His sentences are short and clear with a simple subject/verb construction -- in many ways as straightforward as the type of benign and unobtrusive writing you'd find in an instruction manual -- but the simple, repetitious sentence structure might also suggest that the narrator is merely maintaining composure. In this book, we, the readers, are never told to feel something. Yet we do, thanks to Kimball's subtle ways of winning our empathy.
In the same vein, Kimball wins us over by his impressive emotional authenticity. Us is so authentic that one might mistake it for an autobiography upon first glance. This is half-true. Kimball surprises the reader by including a meta-narrative thread that focuses on some of his own memories and thoughts regarding his family and his first experiences with death. These surprisingly fresh meta-narrative passages provide some authorial context for an otherwise masochistic exercise in storytelling. Kimball touches on the germ of his initial interests and exploration into love and loss: people he's known who have died in hospitals, people who have survived the hospital only to die at home, the day of his grandfather's funeral. The work is not driven by hubris, but by the author's honest need to explore his own greatest fears.
And in the end, Us is really all about fear. It entertains a husband's worst nightmare: namely, what would I do if I had to watch my wife slowly slip away? The inevitable pain one endures when facing the mortality of a loved one is explored in harsh detail. So this book is also all about love and the risks of loving. It's a subject that is often worth the exploration, and Michael Kimball manages it in a bold and touching manner.
Books mentioned in this post