Grief is a hard thing to describe and write about. It is, I think, comparatively easy to write about when grief is thick like morning fog or when it leaves a strong taste in the mouth. It, when coupled with depression, gets harder to describe as most often when there is no feeling.
It is the absence of any feeling, a vacuum which exists where the grief should be, and this vacuum is hard to discern.
This brings me to Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. Reading the description of the book prior to requesting it from the library, I knew that this book won’t be an easy read.
When a woman unexpectedly loses her lifelong best friend and mentor, she finds herself burdened with the unwanted dog he has left behind. Her own battle against grief is intensified by the mute suffering of the dog, a huge Great Dane traumatized by the inexplicable disappearance of its master, and by the threat of eviction: dogs are prohibited in her apartment building.
While others worry that grief has made her a victim of magical thinking, the woman refuses to be separated from the dog except for brief periods of time. Isolated from the rest of the world, increasingly obsessed with the dog’s care, determined to read its mind and fathom its heart, she comes dangerously close to unraveling. But while troubles abound, rich and surprising rewards lie in store for both of them.
Elegiac and searching, The Friend is both a meditation on loss and a celebration of human-canine devotion.– Official Description on Sigrid Nunez’s website
We get no names in the book. We get characteristics of the people around the main character. But from the main character very little introspection. We get little indication as to which race the characters belong to, how old they are. They are given a perfunctory glance, as if the protagonist can’t seem to notice them.
The protagonist is someone who is grieving but her grief is not put into words. The character shares her feelings almost halfway through the book, months after the death of her lifelong friend. We don’t get the friend’s name either.
The only name we get in the book is of the Great Dane: Apollo. Apollo is almost exactly like our main character. Alone. Abandoned by friend’s suicide. Grieving but unable to form words to speak about it.
The first feelings the main characters show are of protectiveness. A kinship to Apollo. An attachment, a bit obsessively of Apollo. She herself says that Apollo is almost a surrogate to the friend she just lost. She is a surrogate to the pet-parent Apollo lost.
Apollo is everything a dog shouldn’t be. He is old, hardly wiggles his tail when the main character comes home. Uninterested in any other dog or person. Apollo sleeps on the bed everyday, not giving an inch for our main character.
Apollo is also a Great Dane, and the character is told they don’t live long. Apollo shows awareness of the fact that he won’t live long.
The main character readies herself for his death. And she does that, she gets to terms with the suicide of her friend.
There is a chapter close to the end of the book. I think it is the most important one. As she finally deals with the loss of the friend, even if it was in a dream.
As I finished the book, I almost wanted to throw the book away because I misunderstood the end. I kept rereading it, I read a bunch of reviews to see if anyone else came at the same conclusion. It was only after rereading it the second day that I understood what happens.
The end was not heart-wrenching, neither was it delusional as I thought it was.
It was accepting. She accepted things. She tried to treasure what she had. Apollo, arthritis aside, was a dog again. Both healing, but not completely healed.