Bellevue Literary Press, who published this excellent, heartbreaking collection of stories, Widow by Michelle Latiolais, specializes in publishing work about mental health or rather, mental illness. Associated with the famous hospital in New York City, it publishes a review as well with the same focus. I had been curious about their titles for some time and reading Widow was a profound experience. That Bellevue, associated with extreme and very apparent cases of mental illness in a number of movies and novels, understands that grief, an experience common to everyone on this planet, is a suffering so strong and life-changing as to make one ill, shows a subtlety and intelligence that should be commended.
And sick she is, the widow of these stories. In the majority of the stories, the narrator is a “widow” and remains nameless. The stories are not connected in any linear, narrative way, but thematically sustain a remarkable, painful consistency. The nameless widows of the various stories represent various archetypes of the widow and explore what those archetypes are. In the title story we learn that widow “meant empty in Sanskrit” and that in Leviticus “the Lord said unto Moses, a widow, or a divorced woman, or profane, or an harlot, these shall be not taken: but he shall take a virgin of his own people to wife.”
No book has been so simply and perfectly titled as this collection of seventeen stories about widowhood. Each story addresses a unique experience, as we all suffer in a way individual to our constitutions and temperaments, but also transcends that individuality and embraces the iconic experience of widowhood and its attendant grief. This is not a sweeping book, but rather one that digs deeper and deeper, painfully so, like trying to cut out a wound, or saw off an arm to be free from the pain. Not all of the stories are from a widow’s perspective; there are also stories written from a young woman’s perspective, the protagonist called in these cases, “the young woman”, as well as some written from the married woman’s point of view, but these often bleed into widowhood.
Grief is a time of incredible disappointment in the people around you, no matter how well meaning. Here are a few quotes of some things not to say ever, to anyone; In the title story, the widow is at the gynecologist, who she is seeing because she has stopped menstruating and has other female problems, “What did you do,” he says, “kill your husband?” In the same story, in a strange moment of bodily relief, of which Latiolais explains precisely, how physically “the body would insist on a cessation for a time of the morbidity of grieving”, she is caught laughing and someone says, “Oh, the merry widows!” And in the story, “Place” the widow goes to a church two years after the death of her husband, remembering back to the year anniversary of his death and a former colleague saying, “That is must really be rather exciting to be able to completely redesign your life now!”
But more than the wall of unmeaning coldness received, Widow is a book about how grief transforms the self, emotionally, physically. The world you live in is no longer the same, either, because you don’t really live in it anymore. In the story “Hoarder”, the narrator contemplates how “We smell of longing, she thought; we smell of desire, we smell of how unseemly these desires are at our age…what did it matter, the age, the number, because her heart was weak and painful in her chest…Scientists—bless them—had found cells in the heart, cells with memory, they theorized, because heart-transplant patients were somehow taking on the characteristics of their heart donors…Of course the heart had memory cells—this was undeniable; the heart was a great hoarder—and every time she thought of him, hers would seize and ache.”
Widow details how physical and real grief is. It is not of the mind. If we spend eighteen years loving and breathing another person, eating and living with, touching, sharing, trusting this one person and they die, they disappear, we are more than alone. Part of us is gone, too. Loss is not just of the person we love, but parts of ourselves shed and die as well. Our heart cells, our menstruation, our desires. The gorgeous simple details of life: a perfect salad, the lovely china, the sun coming into a room, the opera playing on the stereo, the books on the shelves, everything that once was ours, becomes haunted and unbearable.
There are brilliant digressions in this collection, which in tone often belie the academic background of the author. This is not a bad thing in a book whose core is pure pain. Eroticism is often pondered in scenes of the closeness of marriage. In the story “Boys”, the characters are in a strip club, where on one floor women strip for men, and on another, men for women. It’s a brilliant, unapologetic look at the extreme difference of the men and women, of the relationships to the female and male body. In the story “Pink”, the narrator, in a museum room full of tea cups, remembers how “the word porcelain, the word coming from the Latin, porcellus , little pig, vulva, which was—she felt sure of it—an affectionate term for the female vulva, porcellina!…and that “the word porcellana in Italian means “cowrie shell” and derives also from porcello….because of the shell’s resemblance to the female pudenda.” The story goes on in this intellectual, twisting manner and takes us on a ride straight back to the heart. The last line is “Behold, I make all things new, this room of cups no bigger than a kitchen.”
And that is Latiolias’s magic and what any great work of fiction should do. She takes the ordinary and shows how it doesn’t exist. There is only the great mystery of the moments of our lives, which can at best turn into vivid memories. And after that? It is that afterlife, the after of all those mysterious, precious moments, that soaks this book. Death, something so final, still remains the unanswerable question that follows our lives, and Latiolias ponders this beautifully, painfully, honestly.