I’ve had a four-book run of grief stories (so yes, brace for the reviews) and Victoria Hannan’s Marshmallow was the last before I changed gears and chose some lighter books.
Marshmallow tells the story of five friends, who have been close since meeting at university. The novel begins with the friends in their thirties – questions about careers, relationships and plans for the future play at the back of their minds, for what dominates is the one-year anniversary of a terrible accident.
What Hannan has managed to do in this novel is to show clearly and succinctly how grief affects people in very different ways, and how it morphs and shifts over time. One character plunges herself into work, while another sits at the computer playing solitaire to give the appearance of working. One character is unable to do anything at all, stuck on the fateful day of the accident. One begins drinking, the accident triggering memories of a traumatic past, and another desperately tries to hold the group together.
“It’s like you’re both walking in circles on different paths in the same forest.”
The first of the books in my grief-run – Sunbathing by Isobel Beech – highlighted the anger experienced by some in bereavement. In Marshmallow, the character of Nathan carefully controls his emotions, until he can’t anymore, and the rage spills out at unexpected times. After an outburst in his local bakery, he thinks –
The weeping bereaved are more forgivable than the angry bereaved. Now when he needed bread he…walked the extra two hundred metres to the bakery that wasn’t as good. No wonder people were so scared of death, were terrified of its aftermath. The inconveniences it caused.
That may sound a little flippant, however, Hannan pinpoints the small moments of grieving (as opposed to the long crying sessions, the rituals, the bits that are expected). And this is where Marshmallow succeeds – in its normalisation of a range of experiences, in the absurdities (there is a gut-wrenching scene where a character starts weeding and finishes pulling out every plant in the garden), and in the unanticipated parts of the day that catch you by surprise.
It took a few seconds after he woke, as it did most mornings. He loved those few seconds of nothingness. But then he’d remember. His mouth would go dry. He’d feel fatigued right into the marrow of his bones. …Some mornings, he had the feeling like a hand was pressing on the back of his head, a feeling like someone was brushing the inside of his rib cage with the vigour of an old-timey shoeshine. Sometimes he’d experience just one of those feelings, sometimes all of them at once. His grief was a lucky dip. He wondered, and this was the real kicker, how, when it felt so terrible, so constant and so present, so unrelenting, it could also be so boring.
In some ways, Marshmallow lacked the emotional complexity of Hannan’s brilliant debut, Kokomo. I attribute this to the story being told from five different perspectives and moving back and forward in time – the payoff though, was being able to show how grief manifests in its multitude of ways.
There are all the usual themes you expect in a novel of this sort – guilt, regret, sorrow, distress, blame, and also a useful (but not overdone) examination of the ripple-effect of a death – how people slightly removed, such as work colleagues, have to navigate what’s happening.
The blurb promised a story that focused on how a person finds a way to go on living without what was lost. For most of the book, the versions of ‘living’ are grim, but somehow Hannan turns the narrative to something resembling hope toward the end. And it made me cry.
She pulled off a chunk from the outside of the cake: delicate sponge, sugary icing, the tartness of the lemon curd, a hint of elderflower. It was delicious, truly otherworldly delicious.