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.
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.
I have seen a lot of argument online about how authors shouldn’t try to shove in their own political opinions into books. I don’t think that is possible, as writing bares one’s soul onto paper. An author is bound to throw in their political ideas.
Books are not weighed down by political ideologies, but when done correctly, are enhanced by them.
I have started enjoying books which deal with ideologies. It makes the story tangible, almost like a fabric that can be touched, like a discernible flavor. I cherish books possessing similarities with our world.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise ( 7 books, 8 movies and more ) are an example.
Why Harry Potter matters to me?
I first read Harry Potter about 7 years ago. At the time, I had just started reading novels. I owe a lot to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books because they paved the way for me to find my favorite genre: fantasy novels. I remember being in awe with the concept of magic in the books do. I didn’t pay attention to the minute details and webs that J.K. Rowling had spun in those 7 books.
7 years later, today, I have changed a lot. My views have changed. I know a few things on structuring a story. Movies & books have a more lasting effect on me as I pick subtleties easier.
I read the 7 Harry Potter books again to see if I still like them. My intention was to understand the framework with which Rowling had written the story, to learn how to create a world like she had.
I did not do that. I can’t tell you where are the plot points in the book or what exactly is the story arc of the characters. Because 10 pages into the first book, Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone, I was hooked on to the story of a 11 year old boy walking into Hogwarts.
I noticed the onset of PTSD in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I noticed the miracle by which Harry was different than his arch-nemesis Voldemort. I noticed how real the deaths in Harry Potter were: sudden & unexpected. A single line to describe a character’s death, a single incantation.
There are more important things that the story itself. I started noticing things relevant to our own world.
Always the innocent are the first victims, so it has been for ages past, so it is now.
– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter And the Philosopher’s Stone
The Wizarding World:
I can speculate on how much of the world J.K. Rowling created with Harry Potter was directly influenced from the real world from the hundreds of interviews and articles written on it.
Since its inception, the world Harry Potter inhabits has became an entity of its own, with tons of fan-fiction, followers and content creators. Thus, differences between Rowling’s intended allegories and unintended real-life parallels are hard to pick for me.
To explain unintended real-life parallels: In Hot Fuzz, there is a scene in which the town Chief Inspector says ‘Make Sheffield Great Again’. At the time of movie’s release, this line was probably intended to be funny. Now, this line is no longer funny.
In the books, all 7 of them, three children have to consistently stand against a fascist regime which kills anyone who opposes them. The fight is mostly in the shadows, away from the majority of the population that it could affect, until one day a fascist regime is asking its denizens to present its proof of blood worth.
In book 5, Harry Potter and Order of Phoenix, Dumbledore’s Army decide to train themselves because the powers that be, Ministry of Magic, vehemently denied Voldemort is back because they were afraid of losing power. They discredited Harry Potter, launched political propoganda against him to slander & discredit him.
Over the last year in Auckland, I have seen school children marching down Queen Street to protest inadequate action on Climate Change by the people in power. Greta Thurnberg is a major voice in climate change.
It is not hard to find articles denouncing Climate change in general, but the amount of attempts to discredit Greta are bubbling just beneath the surface.
These kids were subjected to massive amounts of ridicule, death threats by not just people in power but also everyone who thought that their ‘rights’ were under attack.
Malala Yousafzai was shot in 2012 by Taliban because she raised her voice, protested.
I am not saying one thing inspired the other. I am just drawing parallels.
Then there is the entire Dumbledore subplot of book 7, in which a fascist government backed media continuously tries to throw dirt on a dead man just to distract the world from the very real threat of Voldemort.
If you read news these days, its hard not to see media being used/using to distract from the relevant news. The examples are endless, leaving us exhausted but ultimately forgetting the bigger issues in life. Lookup Amazon Rainforest fire ( how it is crucial in tackling climate change ) which was burning for at least 15 days before it broke the news.
The Racism within the world:
The books deal with vehement racism between ones who are born in a wizarding family and ones not. It also draws an line between wizards and non-wizards to the point where there is a term for non-wizards ( Muggle ).
This separation between sections of human beings who are & who are not wizards existed way before Voldemort came to be, it has always been a part of the world Harry Potter inhabits to the point where wizards getting close to non-wizards are looked down on.
Arthur Weasley is looked down by everyone, including at times his wife and children, because he wants to study human technology. It seems like the wizarding world is so proud that it refuses to even acknowledge the possibility that their methods are outdated.
I can’t and neither am I going to judge who was more advanced. ( They are fictional book after all ).
But this xenophobia, albeit benign in most cases, is echoed through the fabric of the entire Wizarding world.
This benign xenophobia served as the groundwork for people like Voldemort to garner followers.
After all, it is fairly obvious from the books, that Death Eaters were emboldened only because Voldemort was more powerful than anyone else in the wizarding world. Otherwise, they were law abiding citizens ( mostly ).
Do I need to talk about the real world examples of such a relationship between a fascist man in power and his supporters?
Furthermore. the lack of any social changes since the founding of Hogwarts ( Slytherin vs other houses ) made sure that every person sitting in the Slytherin table exposed to ideas of blood purity and impunity.
Why was nothing done to challenge ideas like that?
How many times have we heard, ‘this is just the way it is’ without actually asking why?
How many times have we looked down on another bunch of people without actually asking why?
Nobody is perfect. These books exemplify that. Not even Harry Potter. He, who of all people should know what it feels like being detested in his own house, has very little empathy for elves.
The Harry Potter books themselves are not perfect. After all, J.K. Rowling keeps appending changes to the story years after the books have been released.
Regardless, the Harry Pottrer books, its characters and the ways with J.K Rowling talks about the wrongness of our world by illustrating an unjust world is mind blowing.
I hope that the next time I read these books again, I get to pick up something more.