Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The World Without You

The best literary fiction (and Joshua Henkin’s latest is one of the best literary novels I have read in a while) has the power to insert the reader into worlds that seem every bit as real as the one they actually inhabit. By the time I finished The World without You, I felt as if I had just spent a rather tense Fourth of July weekend in the Berkshires with my friends, the Frankels and their spouses. Henkin’s characters, all of them, are so well developed that I would feel quite comfortable now chatting with any of them over a cup of coffee or casual lunch. I know these people.


David and Marilyn, their three daughters, two sons-in-law, one daughter-in-law, and several grandchildren gather at the family vacation home for what they already know will be an emotional weekend. They are there to participate in a memorial service for the youngest Frankel, Leo, a journalist who had been kidnapped and murdered in Iraq almost exactly one year earlier. Despite the passage of an entire year, it soon becomes clear that all of them are still suffering from the trauma of Leo’s sudden loss. Emotions are raw, nerves are on edge, and as old resentments and outrages are openly expressed, the family’s very survival will be tested.

Joshua Henkin
A scene from the novel, in which Leo’s parents together describe an incident at a cocktail party they attended eight months after Leo’s death, is so powerful that it haunts me still. Asked by a stranger at the party how many children they have, Marilyn answers “four” at precisely the moment her husband replies with “three.” In that instant, Marilyn felt, and still feels, a surge of anger and hurt that may have forever tainted the way she looks at David and their marriage. David, for his part, still cannot understand why what he said was so terrible. This tiny moment from their lives made me understand the depth of their grief.

The beauty of The World without You and Joshua Henkin’s writing is that so many of the other characters also had moving and poignant moments in which they become utterly believable to the reader. Ultimately, this is not really a story about Leo Frankel and what happened to him in Iraq. Rather, it is a novel about the people Leo left behind to live in the world without him, and how these people have had their lives forever changed by his murder. To reconcile themselves to the grief they feel, all of them will be forced to dig deeply within themselves – a process that finally begins one Fourth of July weekend in the Berkshires.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely review! This is a book I normally wouldn't read only because there are so many books to choose, regular fiction is my last choice, unless one is brought to my attention. I think I'd like to take a look at this one, thanks so much for the recommendation. It sounds intense, which I think I need right now.

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