HOW DOES A WRITER convey grief without mining overly familiar territory and without succumbing to the melodramatic? Joshua Henkin answers these questions deftly in his third novel, The World Without You, as he scatters the grief borne of a man’s untimely death across a sprawling family, the Frankels. The feeling becomes as well defined and compelling in itself as each family member, and yet it is never overpowering. At times this grief is almost muted, but it is always there, shaping the novel and driving it forward.
From the outset, we know the Frankels are coping with the loss of a son, father, and husband — Leo, a photographer who is killed on assignment in Iraq. The novel follows Leo’s parents, on the verge of separation after a long marriage; his sisters Noelle, Lily, and Clarissa, each dealing with their own problems (marriage, anger, infertility); the sisters’ significant others; Leo’s widow, Thisbe; and the siblings’ grandmother, Gretchen. Each member of the family wants to find a way to move forward from their problems. Meanwhile Leo’s mother, Marilyn grieves nakedly, unabashedly, and yearns for those around her to do the same.
The World Without You works well as a character study. Henkin manages to tell the story of a moment, of this family coming together, while also telling us about their histories and wounds — how they have found their way to the present. That thoroughness, coupled with the empathy the writer shows toward his characters, elevates what might have otherwise been just another novel about a large, privileged East Coast family.
Also of note is the way Henkin highlights the dynamics between the Frankels — particularly the women—exposing sibling rivalries and loyalties, the insecurity of a daughter-in-law who is moving on, the sister who has moved half a world away to change the course of her life, and the complexity of a mother who does not know how to contain her grief. As the novel unfolds, you begin to realize how each character is able to see the people around them for who they really are. That honesty, even when it isn’t fully expressed, only pulls you deeper into the Frankels’ world.
The World Without You tackles difficult issues, but a sense of hope resonates throughout, perhaps because each member of the Frankel family is, in their own way, both pragmatic and foolish. This odd combination makes all things possible and allows the novel to end on a note of hope that is unexpected.
I had the opportunity to talk with Joshua Henkin in a series of e-mail exchanges about The World Without You and his writing. I was struck, more than once, by the confidence of his convictions and how well he seems to know what he wants his writing to be, the kind of writer he is and is not.
Roxane Gay: Grief is one of the more difficult emotions to write. How did you think through writing it?
Joshua Henkin: That’s a hard question because grief is abstract, a concept, and fiction writers aren’t (or at least shouldn’t be) interested in concepts. They should be interested in their characters, in flesh and blood people. I don’t see myself as writing about grief. I see myself as writing about a family of two parents, three daughters, one dead son, one grandmother, various in-laws and grandchildren and other folks orbiting around ...read more