Review: Middle England by Jonathan Coe

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This is the first novel that I’ve read by Jonathan Coe. He’s frequently mentioned on The Guardian Books podcast as the kind of writer who always seems to just miss out on winning the top literary prizes – and indeed, Middle England was nominated for the 2019 Costa prize. I thought, therefore, that it was high time I gave his work a go.

Middle England picks up on the lives of characters from some of Coe’s earlier works, but it’s not necessary to have read these – as I discovered. In fact, they inhabit a world which is all too familiar, since Coe’s novel spans the years between 2011 and 2018 when what we thought we knew about Britain and the British all started to unravel. Middle England revisits events such as the riots of  2011, the build up to the 2016 referendum and the divisive fallout from Brexit. It’s a brave subject given the complexity of issues that feed into it, and Coe has (perhaps inevitably) had to opt for a broad canvas on which to set his narrative.  Ranging geographically from London to the Midlands and occasionally beyond, the narrative portrays a cross-section of English society and the issues which both divide and unite it. The main characters are Sophie – an academic specialising in fine art who finds herself at the sharp end of woke call-out culture – and her uncle Benjamin who is struggling to put a novel together.  Accompanying them as they try to navigate their way through a Britain so ill at ease with itself that members of parliament are attacked and killed in the street, are friends, enemies and family members representing all ends of the political spectrum – from Helena (Sophie’s bigoted mother-in-law) to the scowling Corbynista, Corrie.

I have this feeling that we Brits are at our best when we’re laughing at ourselves, and perhaps that’s one of the many things Brexit has stolen from us. It’s certainly one of the points I feel that Coe makes very well in this book: that what we once took for granted  as British values – tolerance, fair play, the capacity for inclusive dialogue, the ability to take everything with a substantial pinch of salt – have all been called into question or even trampled on by a constant toxic stream of abuse and mud-flinging both in the press and social media. If anything characterises the Brexit ‘debate’ it is, in my opinion, a failure to truly engage with or understand other’s fears or arguments.

I felt there were a couple of places where Coe’s characters became a bit too caricature, or where the analysis felt a bit flat (I happen to believe, for example, that the 2011 riots were about more than the issue of race relations)* But I applaud any attempt to take a measured look at what has become one of the most complex and divisive issues of our time. Coe dives deep into the sense of deep-seated frustration and anger which channelled the leave vote, while his novel is equally sympathetic to those who felt loss and anxiety over the country’s decision to leave the EU. And to be honest, at a time when the country seems to have become so polarised that one wonders if it will ever be possible to unite it, Coe’s approach is exactly what is needed.

 

*In ‘“Shoplifters of the World Unite” – Slavoj Žižek on the Meaning of the Riots’ London Review of Books 19th August 2011,  Žižek points to the fact that the rioters might be best described as ‘disaffected consumers’. Fed with images of luxury and wealth which they were unable to obtain, he argues that the riots were fuelled by decades of pent-up frustration. And how else to explain one young rioter’s claim: “Having the nicest clothes … the updated things, the big tellies, the fancy phones … People with the Ralph, the Gucci, the Nike, the trainers, the Air Forces … it’s all the style, just everyone wants it. If you don’t have it you’re just going to look like an idiot. Like, that’s how we see it, you just look like an idiot. It’s a fashion thing.” http://www.guardian.co.uk./uk/2011/dec/05/summer-riots-consumerist-feasts-looters

 

 

Review and Updates – The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Well, it’s been a while! Over six months since my last post, in fact. I kind of underestimated how much time certain changes in my working life might consume. And to be honest much of my reading has also been work related – I think the ship’s probably sailed  for reviews of Paradise Lost.  So all in all, while 2019 was a productive year it wasn’t all that successful so far as reviewing was concerned – not to mention my own creative writing.

On that front, I’ve been struggling with the final chapter of my latest novel – The Fresco and the Fountain  – for what seems like months. However, I can say that it would take sudden death/apocalypse/loss of limb/act of God to stop me from publishing it this year. So expect preview material from that soon.

On to the review, then. As my last post on here concerned Madeleine Miller’s beautiful Odyssey rewrite Circe, I thought I’d pick up where I left off by examining another mythic rewrite  – Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.

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It’s not generally the case that I feel the need to read one book in order to prepare for reading the next. But I felt that I perhaps wouldn’t understand where Barker was coming from if I hadn’t first taken a look at The Iliad. Obviously, it’s not necessary to do this as The Silence of the Girls is very much its own story. But it does become apparent, having read that first great instalment in the history of European literature, that every narrative breeds new stories. Reading the Iliad, one can’t fail to wonder about all those characters who don’t get a voice – who only come alive in order to fall victim to Achilles’ sword, or to be enslaved by the Greeks. And so this is how Barker, like Miller, approaches the issue of myth. The unsung, repressed or forgotten – those elements of minor narrative obscured by the major narrative – suddenly take centre stage.

If I were being flippant, I’d suggest a good subtitle for Barker’s novel might be “…or how toxic masculinity has always f*cked things up for women.” But that would be doing a massive disservice to this very complex book. Yes, Achilles is initially regarded by Briseis (the book’s chief narrator) as a monster – a man who has slaughtered her brothers and husband and who regards her as mere spoils of war. But then Achilles is, as Briseis comes to realise, far more of a liminal figure than he initially appears: a man trapped by his own legend as the ultimate warrior, who never quite fits into the testosterone-saturated world of the Greek camp. And in that respect, such liminality is also evident in the Iliad itself – in Achilles’ all-consuming passion for Patroclus, and his childish penchant for a good sulk “…furious (690) over fair-cheeked Briseis, the girl he had won from Lyrnessus by the sweat of his brow when he sacked Lyrnessus itself…” (The Iliad Penguin loc. 1794).

Paradoxically, the Briseis of Barker’s  novel attains a form of autonomy through acknowledging herself a slave: “A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s.” (38) While the Briseis of the Iliad is never fully heard, here she articulates her situation at every turn: no longer a status symbol to be passed between Agamemnon and Achilles. And if The Silence of the Girls says anything, it is of how women’s bodies are constantly appropriated to serve a purpose – be it Agamemnon’s justification for war in the figure of Helen, or Briseis as symbol of  rivalry amongst the leaders of the Greek army. As she asserts: “Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men. In Achilles’ compound, the message had been: Look at her. My prize awarded by the army, proof that I am what I’ve always claimed to be: the greatest of the Greeks. Here, in Agamemnon’s compound, it was: Look at her, Achilles’ prize. I took her away from him just as I can take your prize away from you. I can take everything you have.” (120)

The Silence of the Girls is a novel which is not trying to right any historical (or mythic) wrongs. Effectively, it is a meditation on the way in which people’s lives are used to tell a story in a given way. The Iliad, it turns out, is not just about the destruction of Troy. It is more than Hector defending the city’s gates; Priam’s grief or Agamemnon’s wrath. It is an infinite number of other tales waiting to be told.

Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

It’s been a while! Mostly because of work commitments this semester. Teaching literature often requires a reacquaintance with some of the classics and I don’t really see much point in writing reviews of Oliver Twist or Mrs Dalloway since those ships have kind of sailed. Having said that, I might post some of my teaching materials in the near future in case they’re of use to anyone else lucky enough to be teaching British and Irish literature.

Anyway, having revisited a few old favourites, I’m now back into uncharted territory so far as my reading is concerned, and this week’s review is for a book which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for fiction this year (https://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk). It’s a novel which succeeds in merging the old and the new; the ancient and the contemporary, since the whole point of myth is that it never goes away. It feeds into the historical and cultural contexts it encounters, and is affected by them in turn.

The great current shift in myth-telling has seen many women writers reclaim ancient stories from a gendered perspective. There’s been – to name but a few – Ali Smiths’ rewriting of Ovid in Girl meets Boy (katecudahy.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/review-ali-smith-girl-meets-boy); Daisy Johnson’s incredible rendition of Oedipus Rex in Everything Under  (katecudahy.wordpress.com/2018/09/16/review-everything-under-by-daisy-johnson); Pat Barker giving voice to the women of Troy in The Silence of the Girls (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Silence-Girls-Pat-Barker/dp/0241338077) which was also shortlisted for the Women’s Prize this year, and Circe by Madeline Miller.

Circe  is a book to be devoured and revelled in. While the titular character is limited to her role as witch and deceiver of men in The Odyssey the sorceress/goddess/nymph who transforms sailors into pigs – and to a few brief mentions in other areas of Greek myth, Miller spins a complex tale of growth, maturity and self awareness. It’s a book which fleshes out the bones of its main character to give us a full-bodied woman who errs and stumbles, but who ultimately finds her way. She stands up to both gods and men, ultimately refuting her fate to forge her own path.

“I find in myself no taste for fighting Trojans or building empires. I seek different days’ (p. 304) Though these lines are not uttered by Circe herself, for me they spell out the message of the book. Its characters live of fall not through the enacting of heroic deeds, but in self-acceptance and self-awareness. And ultimately  – without throwing too many spoilers in readers’ direction – the characters that ultimately fail are those like Odysseus, so caught up in his own legend that he never truly sees himself.

The novel reads like a who’s who of Greek mythology – with Titans, Olympians and famed mortals such as Daedalus or Medea all putting in appearances. And yet, while the book could so easily have swung into mere Hellenic name-dropping or soap opera, it never does. These characters are here for a reason, and it’s more than clear that Miller has put in the hours as far as research is concerned. The story is captured in a lush prose which conjures and transforms just as Circe herself gives shape  to the world around her.

This is  a book which reveals why we still need myth, and why, if myths are to survive, they need rewriting – with one eye on the past and the other on the present. A literary marvel and a great start to my summer reading.

Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

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“Whatever you say, say nothing,” Seamus Heaney famously wrote. That, surely, is also part of the message of Anna Burn’s Booker winning novel Milkman, in which nameless people constantly talk around everything but the truth. Told from the perspective of eighteen year-old “middle-daughter”, Milkman recreates the world in which the unmentionable troubles of 1970s Northern Ireland took place. This is a world in which a single misplaced word or misunderstanding can result in a whole level of community conspiracy: a kind of fantasy shared by people whose every thought and action seems to be governed by a specific set of sectarian values.

Thus, the narrator is assumed to be the lover of a high-ranking ‘renouncer’ or republican paramilitary known locally as Milkman, when in fact she is being stalked and intimidated by him. As local narratives do not appear to authorise any alternative to the idea that she might be his lover, she is both hounded and feared, becoming as much a part of local political mythology as Milkman himself.

What I think is really important about this book is the way it suggests that, amid the very public horrors of events like The Troubles, more private horrors are ignored or even denied. And that merging of the private with the public or political is part of this problem. Women’s lives are policed, and anything which appears to violate borders or the unwritten code of sectarianism proves threatening.

The other surprising aspect of this book, given what I’ve just written is how funny it is. Written with more than a few nods to the digressive style of earlier Irish writers such as Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift, this is a novel which seethes with inventive language. And which proves how  language can be used to obfuscate or even annihilate truth.

I will admit to not actually wanting to like this book, purely because I really thought Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under deserved to win the Booker in 2018. And part of me still feels that. But I have never really read a book which is so relentlessly obsessed with its own linguistic medium, and which uses that self-referentiality to interrogate how we use language for political ends. A hard read but a mind-blowing one.

Review: Public Library by Ali Smith

Public library and other stories by [Smith, Ali]

Recently I ordered a couple of ‘real feel’ copies of works by or about Ali Smith – Girl Meets Boy, and a collection of critical essays on her work. I already had one of these books on my Kindle, but as I needed volumes with page numbers, I decided to order from second hand bookshops. When both books arrived, they were coated in library issue plastic covers, and one of them still contained stamps from Dulwich public library. Coincidentally, I was just reading Smith’s volume of short stories Public Library, which addresses the demise of this treasured institution across the UK following a decade of local government cuts and austerity.

It was both ironic and deeply saddening, and it made me think of what a focal point the library was in the small Derbyshire town where I grew up. (I’m happy to say that’s one book palace which survived the chop). A visit to the library meant opening up new worlds: a very private new world as a reader in a very public space.  And it meant measuring one’s progress from childhood to adolescence when you received the adult reader card – a rite of passage noted by a few of the contributors to Smith’s volume. Libraries are communal spaces and democratic spaces. They function like an enormous secret we’ve all been let in on. Downloading an ebook is just not the same – you don’t have that same sense of sanctuary, or of paying books their due respect while celebrating the fact that this is one of the few times life genuinely gives you something for free. Because without an internet connection and a credit card, you’re mostly forced to source your books the pirate way. And that demeans all of us – authors and readers.

The short stories in Public Library are also a celebration of the act of reading itself, of words and their power, of writers and their histories. Smith has the most amazing ability to mine for joy and subversion in all of her work; to eke out a space in what we take for granted, enabling the reader to see it from new perspectives. I can think of no other author who could effectively pair a tale on credit card fraud with an investigation into the death of D H Lawrence. Or who could trace the breakdown of a marriage to an obsession with Katherine Mansfield. Smith is best at making the incongruous seem a vital part of lived experience – at tracing analogies and associations between the most disparate of pairings. She’s a rebel writer whose work casts an even light over popular culture as much as the literary past, if it will draw her reader’s attention to an idea or image. And snaring our attention is something she never fails at.

Public Library is a paean to our most treasured communal spaces, and to how books connect us across geographies and across time. An essential read and a provocative one.

Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

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Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Neo-gothicism seems to be the order of the day in contemporary British literature, with writers like Sarah Perry, Sarah Waters and Andrew Michael Hurley all offering new takes on a much out-moded genre. What all these authors have proved is that the gothic – with its hauntings and secrets, its dark retreats and the way it plays on our most hidden fears – offers perfect territory for exploration of all that we would still repress, even in our current age of confession, self-expression and over-sharing.

What Perry achieves in Melmoth is nothing short of astounding, and I have to admit that as much as I enjoyed her previous outing The Essex Serpent, Melmoth proved a more satisfying read, abounding in cunning devices which deceive and challenge the reader. To such an extent, in fact, that Perry claims one American newspaper was entirely taken in with the myth of Melmoth when in fact it was her own invention! Taking her cue from Charles Maturin’s 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer, Perry transforms Melmoth into a biblical figure – one of the women who witnessed the resurrection of Christ, but refused to acknowledge it. As a result, she is forced to walk the earth until the day of judgement, watching the guilty and, in her loneliness, summoning sinners to walk with her.

Though set in 21st century Prague, Melmoth has a timeless feel which Perry creates through artful use of dialogue and description so that, in her own words, she renders the present ‘strange’ (podcast: The Guardian) or uncanny, thereby creating the perfect gothic backdrop to the horrifying story which unfolds. And what emerges is a story which terrifies far more through its exploration of human cruelty than its supernatural references. The narrative pivots around the shy, shrinking figure of Helen Franklin: an English translator enduring self-imposed exile for a crime committed long ago. Because Helen refuses to confront her past, the reader is denied knowledge of what that crime might have been until the very end of the novel. In stead, Helen sets about uncovering the myth of Melmoth through stories left behind by the Wanderer’s victims, each of which reveals an aspect of human cruelty and weakness. And by the time Helen is ready to examine her own conscience, we are left in no doubt that her sin was truly grave.

What I really loved about this book was its structure: the stories slotting inside one another like the matryoshka dolls sold to tourists on the Charles Bridge, with Helen’s own personal narrative both framing and nesting inside each one. Perry’s skill as a writer means that the novel glides over a range of genres and styles, from biography to travel diary, with subtle intertextual references ranging from Maturin to Kafka. And the story pays out its surprises with such perfect pacing that its finale leaves you breathless – and in no doubt that while the author has dredged humanity’s dark side, it’s the light which remains. This is literary sleight of hand at its most dexterous – an absolute masterpiece.

Review – The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

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This is probably the angriest book I’ve read all year. The Mars Room is not just an indictment of the American prison system, but an exploration of how society itself fails many of those who get caught up in that system.

Romy Hall, a dancer at the infamous stripper joint ‘The Mars Room’ ends up in a high security Californian ‘Correctional Institution,’ having murdered the man who stalked her. At the same time she discovers that her mother – sole guardian of Romy’s little boy Jackson – has died, and that her own parental rights have been revoked. With no say in the matter, Romy is left estranged from her own child; unable to trace him from prison.

Part furious satire, part invective, Kushner’s novel exposes the farce of a system which leaves the most vulnerable in a position where they will almost inevitably end up behind bars. It is a system characterised by institutional violence. People like Romy – or her cell mate Button Sanchez – are victims of the conditions it creates; punished hypocritically by a society which refuses to examine the way it fails so many of its own citizens.

“The word violence,” narrates Romy, “was depleted and generic from overuse and yet it still had power, still meant something, but multiple things. There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death. And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools. There were large-scale acts of it, the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in a single year, for a specious war of lies and bungling, a war that might have no end, but according to prosecutors, the real monsters were teenagers like Button Sanchez.” (Kindle Loc 3292)

The Mars Room prises apart the myth of a judicial system aimed at rehabilitating prisoners. Such people are thrown into a cycle of violence and counter-violence from birth; the scapegoats of a society which refuses to examine itself and its own crimes.

A hard read, but an essential one.

 

Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

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Sally Rooney has been described as the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” (Guardian): a writer who explores the loves and lives of Millenials, turning accusations of shallow self-absorption on their head. That’s simply not who her characters are. Her books may brim with references to lives lived online, to friends with benefits and clicktivism, but the young adults who populate her novels are politically tuned-in; emotionally astute; voracious readers and sparkling conversationalists.

To a large extent, anyway, this is what I took from Normal People: Rooney’s Booker long-listed novel about a pair of Sligo teenagers who fall in love – and then somehow seem to keep on almost wilfully missing each other. Both Marianne and Connell are attractive, frighteningly intelligent and both are, in their own ways, damaged – Marianne by her own family and Connell by the pressures of small town life and social class.

In this respect, Rooney plumbs deep psychological depths to establish why Marianne – so gifted and so beautiful – should experience such self-loathing. And why it takes a real tragedy before Connell is able to shake himself free of his own complexes and prejudices.

While Connell and Marianne came across as fully realised and recognisable individuals however, I felt this book could have been twice its length if Rooney had given more substance to the supporting characters. We only hear of Marianne’s mother through second-hand reports, for example, yet she is so pivotal in her daughter’s decline. And then there are the endless succession of boyfriends and girlfriends who never quite match up to the real thing: overprivileged, or intellectually challenged, a series of   emotional stooges contrasted with Marianne and Connell’s perfect pairing.

At its heart, Normal People is a love story – at times achingly painful, at others joyous, and there is obviously something timeless about that which goes beyond immediate concerns around technology and peer group prssures. I think, though, that I would have enjoyed a richer background texture to the book – a more in depth exploration of those forces which steer Marianne away from what she views as ‘normal’. And to which Connell sacrifices so much.

A fascinating read, but I’m not convinced it lives up to the hype.

Review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

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I like kind of drifting into and across books. Sometimes finding a new author is like being involved in a massive paper chase, in which one good read leads to the next. The reason, for example, why I picked up (or rather downloaded) Daisy Johnson’s novel Everything Under was because it was recommended by Fiona Mosley, whose novel Elmet I greatly enjoyed. And I read Elmet due to a fascination with the concept of the Celtic/English hinterland of Elmet presented by Nicola Griffith in her work of historical fiction, Hild.

Indeed, there are a lot of points of comparison or overlap between Everything Under and Elmet. Both stories concern people who live on the peripheries of society. Both explore the relationship between gender and identity. And both use myths, history or legend as a base point for exploring contemporary British culture. Thus, the myth of Oedipus leaks into the lives of Johnson’s characters, steering them inexorably towards tragedy.

Gretel is a lexicographer, whose lonely existence is shored up by a fascination with language and semantics. She embarks on a journey in search of her mother, Sarah, who abandoned Gretel when she was just thirteen years old. But it now emerges that Sarah is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and her fading grip on language means a loss of the past itself; her story delivered up in half-remembered fragments.

Through this confused web of time and memory, Gretel gradually pieces together the story of how the almost idyll of her childhood – spent amongst the ‘river people,’ drifting physically and metaphorically along the fringes of society – was splintered and destroyed by the arrival of a boy named Marcus. And of how Marcus may in fact have once been a girl – Margot.

There are so many strands to this complex and disturbing narrative that one reading doesn’t do the book justice. Johnson reveals the way in which we become trapped or ensnared by language or stories in so many different ways. Both Gretel and Sarah are haunted, for example, by the idea of the Bonak – a water creature hunting the river banks. Yet the border between genuine danger and self-imposed fear is a fluid one, and the Bonak turns out to be a term coined by Sarah herself, as she and Gretel share a private language.

In a sense, language in Everything Under takes on the role of fate in Oedipus Rex. It condemns people to relive the same, inescapable narratives; unable to veer course from self-imposed systems of semantics and association. “Again and again,” says Gretel, “I go back to the idea that our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds. That perhaps nothing could have happened except that which did.” Only with the disintegration of language, ultimately, can release from the past be found.

Everything Under has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a novel which reads like a river, meandering, free flowing, and at times sucking the reader into dangerous and disturbing depths. And ultimately, it reminds us of why myths like Oedipus still carry resonance in our fractured, fragmented times. Highly recommended.

Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

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This was a re-read of Ali Smith’s novel Autumn, the first instalment in her ‘Seasons’ Quartet. It is, after all, a book which you can only take so much from on a first reading, since it is so wide-ranging in terms of its frame of reference, and it is crammed with internal echoes which are easily missed.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017, Autumn has been described as a post-Brexit novel, but it’s much more than that. True, it considers the way we become victims of our own lies and prejudices; erecting fences and borders in a deluded attempt to keep ourselves safe. But it also has a lot to say about the way we construct stories, about the way those stories unfold in time and space, and in turn construct our own sense of identity. And deep down, it’s also a love story of an extraordinary kind.

Danie Gluck is 101 years old, sleeping and suspended in his own subconscious; his memories merging with his dreams until it becomes impossible to know where the past ends and imagination takes over. His sole visitor at the Maltings Care Providers Plc is young art historian Elisabeth Demand, who befriended Daniel when he was her neighbour over twenty years earlier. Daniel’s conversations with young Elisabeth about art, books and story-telling, time, truth and lies, created a bond between them which Elisabeth later recognises as a kind of love. The love which enables one person to see another clearly. For as Daniel says, “we have to hope…that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters.” (160)

Flitting freely between perspectives and time, Autumn is a bit like being on the inside of someone else’s memories. “Time travel is real,” Daniel claims. “We do it all the time.” This does not just concern personal memories but myth, literature, art, politics and popular culture, all of which get incorporated into Daniel and Elisabeth’s sense of self; their lives fusing with the books they read and the art they witness. Memory, then, emerges as a kind of mental collage, analogous to the collages of pop artist Pauline Boty whose joyous life and tragic death forms another narrative strand of this complex and beautiful novel.

As Smith states in an interview with Norwegian writer Linn Ullmann, “…love is multiple, various, takes all forms, is non-exclusionary; it will not be coralled, will not be given a shape, refuses to be fixed, and in that way unfixes us all. Thank God.” Few people can write with such truth about love, and of how much we lose in its absence.