There is no solution to grief. Somebody had a metaphor for bereavement. You go through a long tunnel, sometimes very narrow and dark, sometimes broad with glass roofs, but you’re still in it, you’re always going to be in it, because it happened. – Libby Purves
On the front cover of the paperback of Shadow Child, the copy I own, it says – above the title, and in capital letters – THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER which although accurate feels somehow wrong. Perhaps it’s just me but whenever I see things written in uppercase like that I hear the words being declaimed loudly: THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER. The book has been translated into 15 languages and rightly so. If Shadow Child were a movie it would be being referred to as a blockbuster and yet if the book were filmed it would be no such thing. Because it deals with death. Which is strange because it seems we have no problem with death, death of a pretty huge scale in fact. In Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King the body count was 836! The Two Towers managed 468 with The Fellowship of the Ring lagging behind with a paltry 118. In fact if you check out the top 100 films as far as body counts go there isn’t one where less than 63 people die. We like to see people die. And if we’re not watching them die on the big screen we’re hunched over our TVs or computer monitors risking RSI as we end the lives of hundreds upon hundreds of whatever the latest game’s opponents are.
Death comes to all men or, as John Donne, put it, “Death comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes.” “Death is the great equaliser,” – Hamlet. You would think we would have more empathy when someone dies but Joseph Stalin hit the nail on the head when he said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” The reason that Shadow Child would never be a blockbuster is because it deals with the death, not simply of an individual, but of a child, an infant. What is more the girl is not a work of fiction; she was a real, living, breathing baby – at least for forty-seven days.
I’ve said before that a writer’s natural response to life is to write about it. It’s also their natural response to death it appears. Shadow Child was not Pieter Thomése’s first book. He had written five before it and he has written five more since finishing it. It differs from the others in that the child, Isa, was his. And his wife’s, of course, but this is not so much about her or even about them as a couple coping with the death of a child; it is about a writer’s attempt to preserve his baby daughter in words. When Paul Auster’s father died he did exactly the same, he sat down and penned the memoir Portrait of an Invisible Man in which he writes:
Even before we packed our bags and set out on the three-hour drive to New Jersey I knew that I would have to write about my father. I had no plan, had no precise idea of what this meant. I cannot even remember making a decision about it. It was simply there, a certainty, an obligation that began to impose itself on me the moment I was given the news. I thought: my father is gone. If I do not act quickly, his entire life will vanish along with him.
Thomése could have said much the same. What he did say of his daughter is that “[i]f she still exists anywhere, then it’s in language.” During a panel discussion at Bookexpo in Los Angeles in 2008 he told the audience that he was terrified that he wouldn’t be skilful enough to get it right: “I wrote about this immediately after it happened. There was nothing else I could do.”
On Amazon, the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition is listed as Shadowchild: A Meditation on Love and Loss but the Bloomsbury edition simply calls it Shadow Child. The title in the original Dutch is Schaduwkind. It’s a popular title, in fact Libby Purves has just published a novel called Shadow Child which she wrote following the death of her son. She, however, decided to fictionalise the experience rather than do the same as Auster and Thomése:
Novels are in some ways more intimate than any confessional memoir. Autobiography tells you only what the writer remembers, and how she wants you to think she behaved at the time. Some are truthful, some are not. But even the most honest memoir is a careful artefact, reality filtered through self-conscious caution.
In the same panel discussion, Thomése said: “A novel or memoir can take you to places where you’ve never been.” It’s interesting that he said, “or memoir,” here. Purves deliberately chose to write a novel rather than a memoir because she wanted to explore aspects of grief she had not experienced. Her own loss had brought her into contact with other people’s losses – there are very few of us who have not lost someone – and she could see that there was a story to be told. This was some eighteen months after her loss. Thomése was too close to his to do more than try and record and analyse.
There is not a lot to the book. We learn about the events leading up to the child’s hospitalisation, the wait to see if she would recover, the realisation that she would not, her death and their initial reactions afterwards. One Amazon reviewer had this to say:
Now this is a beautiful book, please don’t get me wrong. The author expresses the pain of losing a baby with insight and real feeling.
For those who have lost a baby, myself included, it was comforting to read the thoughts and feelings of someone who has been through the same pain. (Although please note, the author is male – so there are some aspects of losing a child that are not discussed.)
However, the book does not chart the journey to healing this pain. The book ends with the author still in pain. Personally at this point of grieving, I need light at the end of the tunnel, some way to continue, so I actually found the book to be quite depressing
These are valid criticisms up to a point. I don’t believe the author was interested in how they would cope so much as he wanted to record his daughter’s short life and its effect on him:
We learned to read lips, eyebrows, fingers. I even read backs and shoulders. I read footsteps, doors, silences. Later they brought in the equipment, more and more equipment. We learned to read that as well. We learned numbers and their relationship to respiration, pulse rate, blood pressure. We learned to ignore beeps, and could distinguish unerringly between the various drips and tubes. They provided us with explanations, the only ones at our disposal. We wanted to understand everything, we sought a handhold in every fact, in order to keep from falling. Into bottomless nothing.
How do we come to understand things? Understanding is cumulative. As a child I understood what love is. At least I believed I did. I loved and I was loved. I understood what that felt like. Only now I’m in my fifties can I accept that my definition required significant adjustment and I’m still not sure I’m happy with how I define love. The same goes for loss. I’ve lost pets, acquaintances, one friend that I know of, both parents but I haven’t – and hope I never do – lose my daughter. I’ve misplaced her but she was never lost to me. So I don’t understand what Thomése went through. And I never want to. I do understand his need to understand and why he would turn to words to help him. That is what appealed to me about this book: his struggle with language.
He begins by re-examining a death he is familiar with, his father’s:
For a long time … my father continued to pay absolutely no attention to his own death. After his funeral, he just kept coming home. He had a place set for him at the table, he received his mail at the old address. He had parked the car (as the only one in the family who could drive) in its regular place. His raincoat hung on the hook by the door, his hat lay on the rack. His footsteps were heard regularly on the stairs, he shut doors – upstairs, outside – behind him all the time. And when you got up to see what was taking him so long, you could still smell his tobacco in the hall: as if he’d just gone out the door and would come back in a bit. Sometimes I had to pull out the obituary just to convince myself that he was dead.
Suddenly, one day the table stopped being set for him, his mail stopped arriving, his hats and coats disappeared from the rack, his footsteps were no longer heard and everyone stopped getting up to see what was taking him so long. Apparently he was dead then, without anyone being able to say exactly when it happened.
Time reconciles, they say. But that should be: time reviews. It’s a review exercise. You keep in hashing things over, until you forget what it was like at first.
Keeping that in mind you can see why he might want to get his thoughts down while they were fresh in his mind. He would never forget – that goes without saying – but he would never again be able to remember with such accuracy. Time protects us like that.
That the author is male, yes, but that doesn’t mean his has no insight into his wife’s plight:
You remained a mother right down to your fingertips. With knowing hands you cared for what was left in the dented hospital cot: a doll that had to be washed and dressed and combed, because we were playing that it was alive.
You bathed her, changed her nappy, gently brushing her curls. (So beautiful, I saw you thinking, hard to believe this child was made by people.)
This is possibly the most moving chapter where his wife gets the baby ready after her death. As she does so the father sips some of the milk she had expressed and struggles to describe the taste, finally settling on almonds. The child now dead, is then taken away:
Everything [else] is still here. The baby clothes, the playpen. Just in case. Just in case it all turns out to have been a big misunderstanding.
Sometimes I forget that the future is new. There’s still the old one, that I can’t get out of my head.
Today, too, on the street I saw forms she could have taken. There are enough things that would fit her. Gestures, faces, figures. … Instances in which she was potentially present.
All of this the father tries to put into words. There is a problem though:
Language, everything had been hollowed out by events. No word had kept its meaning.
My hands, my arms, are too full of holes to embrace what is being lost. The only words left start with un- and in-, words that try to get away, that try not to say something.
Where language is, there insufficiency is gauged. Only when a thing is gone do you find the words for it. And so every word becomes an afterword, every sentence is an epitaph.
Lifted from her body and laid in words. She has become someone who must make certain she is born over and over: in the words I find for her.
No pictures, please. A memory needs enough room to keep being recollected. It must be able to hide in places where no one looks. In words where no one’s expecting it.
I have to write to hear her; on her own she’s nowhere.
What is striking about this beautifully-worded memoir is what is doesn’t tell us. What is unsaid is important because it is unimportant. He divulges little to do with the death itself. We are not told its cause or which hospital she was taken to. If you dig around on the Internet you can find out a bit more but (in English at least) there’s not an awful lot there. I can tell you that she died of a brain haemorrhage but I have no idea what the cause was. Words are there to record, yes, that’s one of their functions, but, more importantly, words exist to give those events meaning. On the whole the language is simple, the sentences no longer than they need to be, the chapters short and to the point. There is no wallowing in the moment, no milking the melancholy. Lovers of misery memoirs will no doubt enjoy this book but to call it a misery memoir is to sell it short. It would be like calling Nineteen Eighty-Four a science fiction novel.
When I bought the book I thought it was a novella. I wasn’t disappointed to find out that it wasn’t because it’s far more than a record of events. It is quite correctly described as a meditation; one where its author comes to the same conclusion that many writers have come to before him, myself included, that words aren’t the answer but they’re all we have left to us. The most profound chapter is actually quoted in full on the book’s cover:
A woman who lives longer than her husband is called a widow; a man who remains behind without his wife, a widower. A child without parents is an orphan. But what do you call the father and mother of a child who has died?
I can just see that father thinking to himself or even saying aloud, “What am I? What have I become?” and realising that no one in the history of language has found the word to describe a parent whose child has died. Its lack of a word says everything.
Who is this book for? First and foremost it was for himself. Publication was an afterthought. The best books I find are those written purely to exhaust the author’s need to get something out of his head and onto paper. Do I think that this is purely for those who have lost a child or even a loved one? No. Like the Amazon reviewer I’m not sure they would find any comfort in it but what they might find are the words to articulate how they feel. Not everyone is gifted with words. They feel the ache but apart from crying or lashing out they have no way of communicating it. And so they paw through books of quotes looking for other people’s words to say what they have no words to say. Thomése may ultimately be saying that words are inadequate but considering what he was working with – these wholly inadequate words – what he says is actually more than adequate.
You can read the opening chapter here.
P.F. Thomése was born in Doetinchem in the Netherlands in 1958 and won the AKO Literatuurprijs with his first book, the short-story collection Zuidland (South Land), in 1991. He went on to publish two novels, Heldenjaren (Heroic Years, 1994) and Het zesde bedrijf (The Sixth Act, 1999), and another collection of short stories, Haagse liefde en De vieze engel (Love in The Hague and The Dirty Angel, 1994) before making his international breakthrough with the Schaduwkind (Shadow Child, 2003) which won the Max Pam Award. He lives in Haarlem, the Netherlands, with his wife Makira and their two children.
His website is in Dutch but worth checking out for its seven bios, one of which lists the music he listened to while writing Shadow Child:
- Federico Mompou: Silent Music
I’ll leave you with Mompou’s Musica Callada (Silent Music), Book 1, I
 Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, p.6
 PEN WORLD VOICES: Politics, Memoirs and Musketeers, thereisnogap.com, 2nd May 2008
 Libby Purves, ‘Honestly, my new book Shadow Child is all made up’, The Sunday Times, 18th April 2009