Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon

Hmmm… I haven’t pushed much grief-lit lately… So let me to introduce you to Kathleen MacMahon’s superb novel, Nothing But Blue Sky.

David is taking his first solo holiday since his wife, Mary Rose, died in tragic circumstances. Against advice of his friends, David decides to return to Aiguaclara, a small Spanish coastal town where he and Mary Rose holidayed for twenty years.

It was the place where we mended ourselves, marinating gently in a brew of salt water and sunshine. In Aiguaclara, we paused to take stock of our lives, coming to terms with the passing of another year and making plans for the one to come.

In Aiguaclara, David is faced with his loss at every turn – restaurants, views, beaches, all remind him of Mary Rose. Immersed in his grief, he reflects on his relationship with Mary Rose; his childhood; and his career as a television journalist.

David’s childhood – brought up in a unloving family, with an unyielding, volatile father and a cowering mother – gives the first hint as to why he is emotionally stunted. Mary Rose’s family was the opposite – warm and supportive. Through Mary Rose, David learns kindness, although this is not fully realised by him until after her death.

However, MacMahon avoids turning Mary Rose into a saint, and equally, she gives David enough flaws to make him real – after all, the ‘big’ feelings (guilt, anger, grief) aren’t exactly pretty. The result is an authentic and deep depiction of a grief experience.

I don’t know if I even want the pain to go away. Sometimes it feels like it’s the only thing I still have of Mary Rose.

I enjoyed MacMahon’s flourish on both the careers of David and Mary Rose. David, a journalist covering world events, had been witness to terror, and had developed an almost blasé attitude to death. Mary Rose was on the front-line in a different way, as a neo-natal nurse, and her experience of death, when it happened, was deeply personal. And so, when David is unmoored by something that he has reported on countless times, the layers in MacMahon’s story-telling are revealed.

On others comforting him in his bereavement, David says –

I remember bitterly resenting the suggestion that there was any commonality in our experiences. I objected to the implication that what I was going through was at any level normal. I felt like roaring with rage at the suggestion that any other person had ever suffered like I was suffering. My grief was totalitarian; it was self-absorbed in the extreme, and monstrously exclusive.

I allowed MacMahon to stretch belief toward the end because she had done so very, very well in describing the pervasiveness and many facets of grief, without it becoming repetitive. One of the challenges for anyone bereaved is making room for feeling happy again, minus the guilt (in the bereavement world, it’s called ‘getting better guilt’). Nothing But Blue Sky does not have a ‘happy’ ending per se, but it does show David adjusting to life without Mary Rose, and discovering that our capacity for love and happiness is not limited.

At one point David’s friend, Deborah, observes, ‘…we live life forwards, we learn it backwards’, which prompts the reader to draw from this cautionary tale – life can be short, don’t take what you have for granted.

4.5/5 Wonderful.

I received my copy of Nothing But Blue Sky from the publisher, Penguin Books UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Mary Rose and I once went through a phase of drinking Campari with orange juice and I had a sudden notion to taste it, in the hope that it would bring me back, even for one second, to a time when she was with me.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 11): Belfast 12°-18° and Melbourne 7°-15°

7 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. This does sound really well done, capturing something so enormous is a daunting task. I’ve too much bereavement happening at work at the moment to read about it too, but I’ll remember this for another time.

  3. I have this one coming up next in my 20 Books (all related to colours). The synopsis initially reminded me a lot of Monogamy by Sue Miller, but the Spanish holiday setting should be a nice touch and especially suitable for summer reading.

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