My Twitter feed went crazy a few weeks ago with the release of Hannah Beckerman’s debut novel The Dead’s Wife Handbook. So, I joined them all and asked for a review copy that the amazing publishers agreed to send me. I was not really sure what the book was about apart from the obvious title, but I thought it would make a great change to hear the dead for themselves rather than through a detective just for once.
“Today is my death anniversary. A year ago today I was still alive.’
Rachel, Max and their daughter Ellie had the perfect life – until the night Rachel’s heart stopped beating.
Now Max and Ellie are doing their best to adapt to life without Rachel, and just as her family can’t forget her, Rachel can’t quite let go of them either. Caught in a place between worlds, Rachel watches helplessly as she begins to fade from their lives. And when Max is persuaded by family and friends to start dating again, Rachel starts to understand that dying was just the beginning of her problems.
As Rachel grieves for the life she’s lost and the life she’ll never lead, she learns that sometimes the thing that breaks your heart might be the very thing you hope for.
First things first: this is not the kind of book that I would normally choose, not because of any prejudices, but because there are topics that I would rather stay away from in order to prevent myself from sobbing for days – just for your information, the other category apart from “poignant dead people’s accounts” is WWII – but everyone I trusted had loved this book and I wanted to know why. Plus, Hannah is on Twitter and she gives a pretty wonderful and unglamourized sneak-peek into a writer’s life.
So, The Dead Wife’s Handbook is the poignant description of dead Rachel seeing her family adapt to life without her. Beckerman wisely explores the feelings that she goes through as she sees her husband and child suffer and be happy, both without her. This is not obviously something easy to read. The main theme in the book is love and what comes along, because if Beckerman does something is dwell into the characters’ psychology. Rachel is not happy to see her family suffer, neither is she when she sees them be happy without them. So, the complexity of her situation could easily be translated to someone who has lost a beloved one recently: the need to move on, but the sadness and the happiness that come when you do.
However, I had one big problem with the book: Rachel and her family idealize the time when she was alive. Sure, this is a part of grief, but, in my family we have all been very careful not to idealize dead people because it is not healthy. Them being gone does not make them less loved or precious, but they were complex human beings and it is part of their legacy to remember them as accurately as possible. For Ellie (Rachel’s daughter) the narrative about her mother is how amazing she always was which I think is something all 6-year olds think. But, that “amazing mother” image responds to a devoted and sacrificing motherhood with which I do not sympathize. Rachel is then defined as the perfect mother, because that is the only role that she perfectly plays throughout the novel; sometimes her husband or her friends have more complex feelings about her as a wife or as a friend, but nothing negative at all. Also, Rachel grieves for her time that she would have spent with her family, but never for her own time: the books she could have read, the countries she could have traveled to, her goals and success beyond motherhood and marriage etc.
So, The Dead Wife’s Handbook makes a perfect reading for someone interested in the grieving process. It is also an amazing book to explore love and how it can change other people’s lives, but the main character is exactly what the title suggest: a wife and a mother, two categories that seem to come together no matter what.