“Reading round the subject” is a phrase I first encountered in Kate Atkinson’s book called When Will There Be Good News?, the third book in Atkinson’s Case Histories series. I wrote about this book and the whole idea of reading round the subject in a post a while ago.

In that post, I talk about how certain books make me disappear down a reading rabbit-hole. Following leads to other books by the same writer, or about the writer, or about the subject of the original book.

I talk about reading and loving Paula McLain’s book The Paris Wife, and Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast about his time in Paris. How I read and loved a different book by McLain called Circling the Sun, about famous aviator Beryl Markham, and then followed that up by reading Markham’s memoir West with the Night. And then finding an article which said that Hemingway had read Markham’s memoir, and written to her that it was one of the best books he’d ever read.

And finally how when I was writing the post I reread parts of Atkinson’s book in which the character Reggie’s tutor advises her to “read round the subject” to prepare for her A-levels and suggests Hemingway’s short stories.

“Aha,” I remember remarking to Hubby. “See? It all starts and ends with Hemingway.” And Hubby rolled his eyes and replied that I always think everything starts and ends with Hemingway. Ha. He was probably still bitter that I’d dragged him all over Paris earlier that year in my search for Hemingway sites.

Our still unoccupied bird house.

These past few weeks I’ve found myself reading round the subject of grief. Not so much reading about grief. But reading and listening to books which help me to deal with my grief. Books which help me to process my mum’s death. And what the world will be like for me without her in it.

I’ve written before on my blog of finding solace in books. During times of stress when my brother was ill. And during the pandemic. You can read a selection of those posts here and here.

I’ve always turned to books during times of sadness or times of stress. The first book I recall helping me cope with life’s uncertainty and pain was Gene Stratton-Porter’s The Keeper of the Bees. I read it back in 1984, the year I fled my city life to move home to New Brunswick with my tail between my legs.

That year, I unearthed in my grandmother’s book closet an original hardcover copy of this book, published in 1925. There was something in this novel about James McFarlane, a World War I veteran who recovers both physically and spiritually, that helped me. Maybe it was the story, although I don’t remember much about the plot. Maybe it was Stratton-Porter’s writing. I do remember her vivid descriptions of the landscape. I remember her writing about the sunshine, the sea, something about fresh-from-the-vine tomatoes, and about James McFarlane’s caring for the bees. And how all this helps him heal. And reading of his healing helped me see the world differently.

I wonder if I read it again now if I’d cringe at how dated and overtly sentimental it is. Or if I’d be charmed all over again.

Our phlox is blooming this week.

During the ten days in late April and early May that my sister and I sat by Mum’s bedside in the hospital, I read a lot. I read as we sat in her hospital room. Over my breakfast or lunch in the hospital cafeteria. And in bed at night.

Not all books that help during times of stress offer solace, as such. Sometimes distraction is what is needed.

I read Natalie Jenner’s book Bloomsbury Girls, about a post World War II book shop in London and the fate of the women who worked there. I plucked this book from Mum’s bookshelf. I’d bought it for her for Christmas last year. I don’t know what she thought of it, or if she even read it. During the months after Christmas she wasn’t talking much on the phone, and I know she wasn’t reading much anymore. But I loved it. And I think if Mum had read it a couple of years ago, she would have loved it too.

I loved just about everything about Bloomsbury Girls. The talk of books, how books are written, the glimpse into how they are published, and how they were sold. Jenner’s exploration of themes of feminism, art and creativity, and scholarly research. The appearance of several real life characters: Daphne du Maurier, Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim to name a few. And the details of the characters’ lives, especially Evie’s scholarly research into the existence of a lost rare book. I also enjoyed meeting again several characters from Jenner’s previous book The Jane Austen Society, which Mum and I both loved.

This was a wonderfully distracting book for me. Especially as it sent me down several topical rabbit-holes, researching the historical characters and their lives. Just as she did in The Jane Austen Society, Natalie Jenner melds her fiction and historical fact with great skill. Both Jenner books have satisfyingly happy endings; all of the Bloomsbury girls live happily ever after. To be honest, I could not have borne an unhappy ending.

I also read Elly Griffiths’ murder mystery Bleeding Heart Yard. This book, the third in Griffiths’ Harbinder Kaur series, is set in London. It involves a series of murders beginning with the killing of a well-known MP at a school reunion, and it explores the secret that several friends who attend the reunion share. This book is classic Elly Griffiths. She explores themes of truth, the reliability of memory, and love, who loves whom and why. Of course, most poignant for me was the development of the relationship between the character Anna and her mum who is ill with cancer. Their relationship is nothing like the one I had with my mum. But still mother-daughter relationships, illness and care-giving, dependence and independence…. that hit close to home for me.

View of our dandelion crop.

These past couple of weeks, since Mum has died, and I’ve been back home, I am reaching for quiet books. I don’t so much need distraction now, as quiet and the space to think and process.

I’ve been listening to the Audible version of The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson-Burnett, read by Lucy Scott.

Hodgson-Burnett is best known for her children’s books The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, but she wrote adult fiction as well. I came across her name as I was searching for a book on Amazon. Up popped this book as a suggestion based on my browsing history. I know I’m supposed to be affronted that Amazon knows and remembers what I’ve looked at on their site, but I’m not. I’ve discovered several new writers that I like this way. In a review of the book, I read that The Making of a Marchioness was a favourite book of Nancy Mitford. Of course, if there’s a Mitford involved, I’m interested.

I loved the Hodgson-Burnett book from beginning to end. It’s perhaps not as iconic as the novels of Jane Austen, but I loved the loyal and gentle characters, the writing, and, well, just the whole experience. Not least of which was Lucy Scott’s wonderful narration. I kept thinking how much Mum would have loved it too. And that if someone had made a movie of the book, it might have become a lovely part of our ritual Jane Austen viewing sessions. That realization was bittersweet.

The last of the books I want to talk about is the one I have just finished. Penelope Lively’s Perfect Happiness. I discovered this book as a direct result of reading round the subject. I’ve been dipping into the biography The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne for a while now, reading a few chapters, and then setting it aside. That is in no way a comment on the quality of the book, which is wonderful. I’m just not terribly persistent when it comes to non-fiction.

Anyway, in her biography of Pym, Byrne mentions Pym’s fascination with the writer Ivy Compton-Burnett. I thought that maybe I’d like to read some of Compton-Burnett’s work. So I looked her up, and opened a digital sample of one of her books. The extract was actually the introduction to one of Compton-Burnett’s books written by Penelope Lively. And while Lively’s introduction made me think that Compton-Burnett’s work might be too dour for my current mood, it reminded me of how much I love Penelope Lively’s own books. So instead of Compton-Burnett’s book, I ordered Lively’s novel Perfect Happiness.

Perfect Happiness is actually about grief. About one woman’s grief following the death of her husband. And how she navigates the first year of her widowhood.

The plot starts when Frances has been a widow for “eight months, two weeks, one day” when she is still in the midst of “ripe, howling grief.” We follow Frances through the next few months as she examines her grief, and tries to navigate the disorienting present, to “move through days as they come,” even as she is obsessed with her past, obsessed with the moments of “perfect happiness” she recalls. Frances attempts to imagine a future without her husband, Steven, and tries to adapt to the fact that her life going forward will develop without him. She will live in a house that has not known his presence. And she will change and grow into a new person he has never known. Frances eventually stops trying to anchor herself to the past she shared with her husband, and learns to move forward independently. And watching as she does so was healing for me.

I have always loved and admired Penelope Lively’s work. Perfect Happiness is a beautiful book. Poignant, moving, sad, and yet soothing. I identify so much with Frances as she tries to understand her loss. And as the other secondary characters cope with their loss and move on with their lives without Steven, without their brother or father. As she navigates her grief Frances discovers things about Steven she never knew. She meets and likes his old enemies, and sees him through their eyes.

As I said in a message to a friend a few days ago, if losing someone were only about simple sadness, that would be so much easier. But most of the time grief is much more complex. At least I am finding it so. And even though my grief is very different from hers, reading about Frances’ experience has been helpful.

So I’ve been reading round the subject of grief without actually reading about the subject. Just reading books which have distracted me from my sadness. Or books which are calming and make me feel optimistic and hopeful. Or books which help me by experiencing grief through the eyes of someone else. Even if that someone else is a fictional character. And through all of this I am giving myself space and time to think.

It’s funny that for someone like me who loves to talk, talking hasn’t actually helped. Reading helps. And, oddly enough, writing helps too.

Fiddleheading, May 1983

By the way that’s a photo from May 1983 above. Just before my birthday. Me and Mum and Lloyd and a neighbour on the farmer’s ferry heading to Sugar Island to pick fiddleheads. A spring ritual in New Brunswick. A former boyfriend took the photo. No, not Hubby; I didn’t know him then. I can tell that Lloyd is saying something jokey to my boyfriend. He always held his hand up like that when he was teasing. I imagine that Mum is probably saying to the boyfriend, “What the hell are you doing?” Mum and Lloyd could be quite the double act when they wanted to be. The neighbour and I are laughing. We all look happy, don’t we?

In the photo I’m wearing Lloyd’s heavy, home-knit socks in his rubber boots and a soft fisherman knit sweater that I loved. I was twenty-seven and working in Ottawa in a job I hated. A job which I would soon chuck in order to head home for a year to regroup and get my head straight. A few months later I would read Gene Stratton-Porter’s book and feel more optimistic about the future.

You know, Mum would be pissed if she thought I was publishing a photo of her in her old pink cardigan, half buttoned, under that red jacket. Whose jacket was that anyway? One that someone, one of us kids or one of our friends, left behind in the hall closet and which she just grabbed to wear over to the island. Never guessing that she would be frozen in time in it.

Like Frances in Perfect Happiness, am I trying to understand the present by peering at frozen images of the past? By conjuring the past in my head through images of happiness or unhappiness? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe I am.

By the way, if you didn’t notice, in that photo on the ferry, Lloyd is wearing his hat with a slight McCarty slant.

P.S. The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link, I will earn a small commission which helps to pay for the blog.

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52 thoughts on “Reading Round the Subject of Grief”

  1. That phrase (and that wonderful young protagonist) from When Will There Be Good News has stuck with me as well . . . and I’ve done considerable reading around the subject of grief as well (the focus of my doctoral research, done while my dad was dying and in the wake of that loss, was elegiac fiction featuring the loss of a parent). And I’ve just finished yet another book (a memoir masquerading as a novel) about a woman who’s grieving the loss of her mother — my mom’s been gone for ten years now, and I feel the loss all over again, and am consoled, somehow, all in the same reading. . . I think, in some way, reading about this kind of loss lets us share in a general experience (which is, if not comforting, perhaps at least validating?) but also makes room for the singularity and significance of our own. And there’s reassurance that others have moved through the experience to a point where they can write about it from a survivor’s perspective — so we might manage to get there ourselves.
    At least, that’s my take — my 70th birthday this week has me ten years older than I was the year both my mother and my father-in-law died within two months — and a year older than my mom was when my dad died — so I’m surely projecting my own feelings on your experience. For which, forgive me, and I dearly hope that you keep finding books that help you process your grief, or distract you from it, depending what you need that day. xoxo, f

    1. I think that’s exactly right, Frances. Some of the books I read were comfort reads, some distractions… but that Penelope Lively book was, as you say, “validating.” And that was useful.

  2. You know , I often wonder how people cope with life without books . They would say we should be out living life rather than reading about it but there is so much wisdom in books . Other people , other generations who have coped with the same blows , can help us to come to terms with our life . When my mum died , too early , I would have to tell myself that everyone loses their parents & has to cope with it . That might sound hard but I needed to reassure myself that it was normal . We all have to manage grief in our own way .
    I love your observation that your mum’s hastily grabbed jacket is frozen in time . You can see why our ancestors wore their Sunday best , borrowed sometimes , for their precious studio photographs taken for posterity .
    I wonder if you have read Christina Koning’s Blind Detective series ? They are set in 1930/40s UK & I’ve enjoyed the first two . Sounds improbable that a man blinded in WW1 solves crimes but it seems to work .
    Your Phlox are beautiful – I’ve always found tending my garden very comforting but I know how you feel about that !

    1. I remember a conversation Mum and I had on the phone a few years ago, resulting in her saying, “What do people do if they don’t read?” I haven’t read that series of mysteries. I will look for it at the library. Thanks for the suggestion. 🙂

  3. In our weird world, where not actually doing anything is perceived as almost sinful – wasting time! not being productive! not seizing the day! – the idea of simply stopping is hard to grasp but surely that is the point of death and grieving. It is the one thing that will change all your plans and bring everything to a grinding halt. As it is meant to, I believe. As I once commented, it’s not like on the TV where there is immediate hysterics, sobbing and then, strangely, people get back to normal, quick-sticks. Reading is the perfect and soothing occupation when the brain is whirring away but hands are still. And reading in the bath…my ultimate solace. It says Go Away like nothing else. You seem to have found a rich seam to mine and I hope it eases the days.

  4. Memories seem stronger at times of great loss. But grief has its own timetable. It took me years after my dad died to stop thinking I needed to call him every time I was going away, to tell him I’d be out of town for a while. In the end, I accepted that false urge as a happy excuse to think about him and all the conversations we’d had over the years before I left town for work or fun. And soon after that, the urge to call him at those times stopped.
    I too like to read around a subject. I did that 25 years ago as a new mum, trying to make sense of the enormous change to my life. Next, I’m sure I’ll be reading around having an empty nest. I’m so pleased you’re finding solace in reading and writing 🌸

    1. I used to think, when doing a tricky cryptic crossword, “I’ll call dad, ask him”, for some years. Now it seems a lifetime ago.

  5. I haven’t read any of these but today I was reading an article which mentioned these books in relation to the grieving process…Levels of life, Julian Barnes; A widow’s story, Joyce Carol Oates; The accidental tour guide, Mary Moody.
    A really insightful article for me about grief, ‘it never goes away. It just changes. It finds its place in the shape of things, and as life continues, the shape of things changes and the place it occupies changes.’
    That bit struck a chord with me about my dad (who died a long time ago). Take care, Genevieve xx

  6. Grief is a strange creature indeed experienced differently by us all. I loved your writing today and reading it, although he passed over ten years ago, brought back a wave of nostalgia for my Dad. It does get better but never leaves and can hit one at the most in opportune moments. I remember having to leave the mall as I passed by a Laura Secord display of chocolate Easter Eggs ( our favourite) and began openly weeping at the memory. Like you I was loved and think grief reminds us of that. Sending warm thoughts your way.

  7. When my father died I read for answers. I wanted someone to explain what I thought was a horrible senseless situation. I came away with a small amount of comfort. There were no true logical reasons to be had. This was life and faith in someone greater was what I had to accept as my comfort. I read alot of books on death, grief and reincarnation. When mom died I didn’t read. I cleaned…anything and everything. There were no words to be spoken or read that could help me. I needed control of a my upside down world. Strange that when mom passed I finally realized I was an adult. There was no safe haven to return to from my childhood. That still fills me with sadness.

  8. I do recommend a writer who seems to have gone out of fashion: Howard Spring. In particular his novels All the Day Long and My Son, My Son. He has such a delicate, elegiac style of writing. I just ‘disappear ‘ when reading him!

  9. I like the phrase “reading round.” Often, for me, the measure of a good book is if it leads me to something else. In the photo, I thought it was you in the red jacket. Those who have gone before live on through us.

    1. P.S. A book that helped me a number of years ago after a favorite uncle’s death was The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

      1. Yes, this! I read after my mom died, and it immediately took its place atop the greater Didion-Dunne universe.

  10. Your post is so elegiac and poignant,as well as comments……-and books-….so nice and soothing!
    “Photos and people frozen in time”……
    I always read about the subject, with books , films and series as well
    To immerse in books,always precious!
    When my dad was dying (it was a longish process) I’ve read so much,on my phone,waiting in ER’s,trying not to think……..
    Sometimes one misses a parent so deeply in a moment, months and years later-I still think that he is here ,in a way, and if I want to tell him something, I can, but than, a part of me is gone with him as well
    Dottoressa

    1. I read on my phone at the hospital too. 🙂 You know, I felt such uncomplicated grief and sadness when my step-father died. I wish what I’m feeling this time was as straight forward.

  11. Books are such a solace, whether they reflect what we’re feeling, provide a fresh perspective, or simply help us to escape into another world. I’m not sure I’ve ever read such a huge number of books in a concentrated period of time as I did during the anxious early days of the pandemic and the death, during that period of time, of my father.

    Continuing to think of you often!

    1. Thanks, Denise. I’m so sorry about your dad. It must have been hard to lose him during the pandemic when everything was so fraught in so many ways.

  12. What a lovely and timely post. Books have saved me throughout the last 10 years after losing my son. My dear sweet son. He was a young adult with a future ahead of adventure. Grief is as complex as he person we grieve, when we lose someone younger, in their prime, we not only grieve our loss, but we grieve their future. The life they didn’t get to live. Since then, I have lost my parents, and Mother in Law, and best friend. But the grief for them is different-as they lived a longer life, they loved, had children, had grandchildren. It is grief, just different.
    I grieve that my son still had so much ahead.
    Books-they save me, stories organize my mind and put it in order. Grateful for books is an understatement . cheers-and thank you for the recommendations.

    1. Oh my goodness, Sandy. That is so hard. My good friend lost her son when he was fourteen. My mum lived a long life… there’s such a difference.

  13. And your mom’s foot is pulled up just like you do sometimes….or it appears that way?

  14. As many have observed, grief affects all of us differently. When my husband died in 2002, I, always an avid reader, lost my ability to read fiction. I could not concentrate because there was no way a plot could ever match what was going on inside my head. My therapist said this was a common reaction, and eventually my ability to read fiction, and to escape into another reality, returned. As I recall, it took about two years.
    Grief never goes away, but it becomes gentler. I’ve experienced it more often than I would like, especially with increasing age and Covid. Now it just seems like an ever-present, usually quiet friend. When it starts to overwhelm me, I reflect on how much worse it would be to have no one to morn.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. You may have only one mother, but you can have unlimited friends.

  15. One of the phrases I say a lot is – “Mum would have loved that”, when talking about a book, some blue and white dishes or lovely thing for the house (also clothing, as she was much more stylish than myself). I lost her nineteen years ago, very suddenly. She had lived a good, long, loved life, (with much sadness as well). She taught me much.
    I also say – “Mum would have hated that”, about the political situation in our country (USA). But, it gives me comfort to know that when I am shouting at the news, she is there with me all the way.
    We are both fortunate for having such wonderful special Mums. ❤️❤️ Love your post.

  16. thank you for the lovely post and wonderful comments. Grief is varied for each of us and challenging. I sometimes think we should go back to the black armband so that others would know to be a little more gentle with us. We don’t just “get over it” after the funeral. I do feel our “departed” loved ones are still very near and interested in us and cheering us on. However, we do have to soldier on without their physical presence. I have recently loved This is Happiness by Niall Williams. A young man is sent to live with his grandparents in a remote village in Ireland after the death of his mother. It is a slow-paced, meditative book, full of wry humor. The characterization of the grandparents is one of the best I have ever read.
    May we all be gentle with each other, whether we are grieving or not.

    1. I agree, Mary! Almost 40 years ago when we lost our 5-year-old daughter to leukemia, I almost wished that I was living in the day when people wore black while in mourning. Life went on for the rest of the world, but mine would never be the same again. Thankfully, as time went by I learned that, as Cathy D said above, “grief never goes away, but it becomes gentler.”

    2. Wouldn’t that be good, a return to black armbands. No need to answer stupid questions about one’s watery eyes or “long face”. I will look for that book, thanks for the suggestion.

  17. What a genuinely beautiful community of women you have gathered here, Sue. So many thoughtful and kind comments! I will only add that giving yourself space and time to think, to process, and to grieve is so very wise. Be gentle with yourself.

  18. I lost the ability to read anything but what I call “comfort reads” for a time after both my father’s and my mother’s deaths – 15 years apart. The Forsyte Chronicles, Jane Austen, my favorite Loretta Chase Regency romances – I could trust them to take me down certain paths without taking me too far afield. Eventually, my reading branched out once again.

    I’ve been on a bit of a reading hiatus – my Portuguese final finished 1:45 ago, so I can now concentrate on something other that the preterito inperfeito and its many uses while I await my results. Pretty sure I did well enough, so I’m not going to fret while waiting. Sue, your mention of The Jane Austen Society reminded me that it was patiently awaiting me on my Kindle app (for my sins, there are a whole bunch of books awaiting me there!), so I’ve opened it up and was immediately sucked in, which is exactly what I needed. Between books and Netflix, I have a lot of catching up to do before we figure out our next steps in our Portuguese journey. Probably a tutor to reinforce the concepts that we’re a bit shaky on as we move ahead.

    1. Hope you enjoy The Jane Austen Society. It wasn’t what I thought it would be… it was so much better. I may send you an email asking some Portugal questions, if that’s okay, Carol. We’re just beginning to plan a trip there for the fall.

  19. Sue, I am just getting caught up on a few weeks of your blog posts – the usual list of things have preoccupied my time – and I want to say that your post about your mum’s passing was poignant, and your grief now is understandable. You clearly had a wonderful bond with your mother and a mutual respect as adults. The love and concern for your mother that came through in your writing made me appreciate my own mother even more. When you wrote “we thought she’d go on forever” it made me reflect on what a good life means, and it seems that even having had times of difficulty in her life, your mother had a very good life, with family who loved her very much. To be surrounded by family in her last days is a testament to a well lived and well loved life.

    1. Thanks, Joanne. Mum’s early life was difficult. But she had a great life after we moved to the farm… lots of hard work but much joy too.

  20. My hubby and I are on a mini vacation in the mountains. I packed Jacqueline Winspear’s The White Lady. Very good so far. But as usual I brought comfort books, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, and a long gone local author of young adult books, Lenora Mattingly Weber. Books, after my family are one of the most important things in the world. May you find comfort in your reading all.

  21. I’ll be eternally grateful for learning to read at any early age … and for parents who nurtured my love of books and introduced me to the library! Books have been a constant throughout all of the ups and downs of my life.

  22. Thank goodness for books to distract us, soothe us, help us process feelings, help us escape. It sounds like you have read books that have done some of all of that. What a wonderful collection of books and of your thoughts on the process of coping with grieve.
    I’ve just finished listening to The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches and enjoyed it. It’s a good escape and I like stories about witches. Another recent listen and good for escape was Keeper of Enchanted Rooms. A little magic never hurts.
    Great photo of you, your Mom and Lloyd. You were fashionable even back then. The way that you are wearing the socks and boots is very chic.
    Enjoy your flowering phlox and your dandelions. The bees will be happy.

    1. I had gone to New Brunswick that year not imagining that we’d go fiddlehead picking with my parents. And I had no suitable footwear with me. So Lloyd’s boots were needed, and then his heavy socks so I could keep them on my feet. Serendipitous chic, I guess. Ha.

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