Lives and Deaths in Fiction

Publication2.jpgCathy’s Hidden Gems features favorites & lesser known selections from the fiction shelves of the Portsmouth Public Library.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (2017) starts with an interesting premise. Before you even begin the 866 pages, you get the gist on the inside cover:

Ferguson’s life will take four simultaneous and independent fictional paths. Four identical Fergusons made of the same DNA, four boys who are the same boy, go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives. Family fortunes diverge. Athletic skills and sex lives and friendships and intellectual passions contrast. Each Ferguson falls under the spell of the magnificent Amy Schneiderman, yet each Amy and each Ferguson have a relationship like no other.

theendofdaysAn idea for a long road trip listen – you can put the Audio CD on hold here.

In the meantime, try this Hidden Gem: End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck – written in 2012 and translated by Susan Bernofsky in 2014.

Each of the 5 “books” tells what happens after the death of the main character at different life stages. Book I starts with the baby’s death and the unraveling of her family but there is an Intermezzo before book II about what if:

the child’s mother or father had thrust open the window in the middle of the night, had scooped a handful of snow from the sill, and put it under the baby’s shirt. Perhaps the child would suddenly have started breathing again….

And the child would have lived, and had a sister, and the grandmother would send the family on a visit to Vienna where the father meets an old friend and gets a new job… and thus the stage is set for Book II.

Starting in the early 20th century, through wars and political upheavals, from Vienna to Russia to Berlin, End of Days is fascinating and a bit heady. Give yourself plenty of space to read and ponder. This review in the Guardian compares the author to Chekhov.

Readers will be disturbed less by violence and more by grief and uncertainty. In the book the characters ask why? but I was struck more by what if?, and the small decisions that can have impact for yourself and future generations.

There are several other popular items that approach multiple lives and deaths apart from books. Tom Cruise has several chances to change the outcome in Edge of Tomorrow… unfortunately he has to die every time!

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (2013) by Andrew Sean Greer was a Notable Book in the New York Times Book Review. Set in Greenwich Village in 3 different eras, Greta’s journey through treatment for depression leads to alternate selves.

What was most wonderful about my journeys, I now believe, was that I alone could appreciate the beauty of those worlds. None of the ordinary people in 1918 found the flickering gaslight quaint…. In 1941… the way that women flounced their skirts, and how men were always removing and replacing their hats, things that are gone forever: it was nothing to them. I was that visitor who comes to a country and finds it charming and ridiculous all at once.

Greta never knows how long she will stay in each life, but her twin brother Felix and her lover Nathan are constants. Each character grows and develops in response to the current decisions they make and the effects of the times, especially the world wars.

91H+UFi7SILWhile Greta lives in 3 eras, in Sharon Guskins’ The Forgetting Time (2016), Noah has memories of a past life not his own.

Janie worries that her son Noah will never fit in – his fears are overwhelming to them both. In desperation, she turns to Jerome Anderson, who has left academia to pursue research into memories living on in another person. He works with children who could never have known how score to baseball at age 4, or who have a birthmark that corresponds with the injury of someone who died near the same time as they were born.

Jerome has his own medical and mortality issues, but ultimately we see how healing memories can help people live more fully – however long their lives are.

Do we live just our present life, or do some need to continue to process previous lives? In addition to parenting challenges, this book contains a fascinating theory of memory and reincarnation, grief and healing.

Healing memories and processing loss may be the center point of This Angel on My Chest by Leslie Pietrzyk (2015), winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. These short stories and writings from the widow’s perspective cut to the heart.

From Heat:

He’s the one who wanted the thermostat turned down at night.

‘What are we saving, like fifty cents? …over the course of the winter… maybe thirty bucks? ‘

‘Seventy five…That’s real money.’

…the blanket was big and fluffy, the bed small… The funeral was in April, so it wasn’t until November that I had to turn the heat on…. It was an easy thing to do, to slide the switch from OFF to HEAT…. I didn’t even think of turning down the heat that night or any of the nights…. the next day I bought more blankets.

Writers often process their own stuff in their work and Pietrzyk says the things we do not ask the bereaved to share. From her pain and skill she brings us to the brink of her experience.

From What I Could Buy:

What I could buy with the insurance money they gave me when you died:

Four separate world cruises on the Queen Mary 2, assuming single supplement…. 3,333 sweaters, assuming 100 percent cashmere, assuming on sale…. 8000 bottles of Johnnie Walker Red, assuming mixes necessary…. 62,656 frozen Stouffer’s dinners, assuming no tuna casserole

Assuming this money is about right for what a human life is worth… assuming I can live with myself… assuming I can live. Assuming a lot.

Her grief is palpable, evoking emotional responses and in many cases an indictment of how we treat others in grief. It also, reminds us that death can come at anytime of life.

We need to have these conversations but often avoid them. This plays out in the popular HBO series Six Feet Under, which ran for 6 seasons – poignant with gallows humor and a glimpse inside a dysfunctional funeral home. In each episode, we see them take off the kid gloves while discussing dying and grieving, all while showing how a family lives and loves, helps and hurts each other.

The library has hosted several popular Death Cafes (this NPR article also gives more background). The byline is:


We are both drawn and repulsed by the fact we are all moving towards dying. At the same time, we can find insights into different ways of living.  That’s a conversation worth having, too.

Hidden gems is a blog series by Cathy Okhuysen of the Public Services staff at PPL, lover of historical and general fiction and contemplative music singer. If you have suggestions for something that should be included in a future blog post, email her at





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