In Joshua Henkin's third novel, "The World Without You," an affluent Jewish family gathers at their Berkshires summer home one year after the youngest son, Leo, is killed in Iraq. The book opens on the July 4th weekend, with the dissolving marriage of Leo's parents, Marilyn and David, whose loss has driven an intractable wedge between them: "She has reminded him of the statistics, what happens to a marriage when you lose a child. Eighty percent, she's heard, maybe even ninety."
But this novel is not as grief-stricken as the statistics suggest. Rather than dwell in the horror of a child's death, the narrative investigates how people resume living in the wake of tragedy. "The World Without You" is less an elegy to the lost son than a tribute to those who remain. When the foundation has been shaken, the novel asks, how do we pick ourselves up?
Henkin's prose is as smooth and clear as a morning lake. You want to dip back in for the specificity of detail and feelings evoked: "It's an hour before the concert, but the traffic is thick with exhaust, with the smell of salami and pâté, of macaroni and cheese, pickles, mashed potatoes and scones. The stuff of summer picnics, Thisbe thinks, recalling weekends with Leo, wandering past Kripalu to Tanglewood, where they would camp out on the lawn while the string musicians held practice."
Like his winsome 2009 novel, "Matrimony," "The World Without You" is a study of close relationships, typified by warmth and wit. The characters are sympathetic and flawed, drawn with compassionate strokes. They experience fertility troubles, marital disappointment, awkward mishaps and religious differences, but Henkin's authorial touch is never heavy-handed. Rather, the narrative builds tiers of tension that break unexpectedly into dramatic action, like blocks in a Jenga tower.
The family's comfortable standing subtly reminds that death comes even for the privileged. Bush and the war act as external forces against which to rail and oppose, but they're easy targets. Far more difficult is addressing the religious friction within the home: an Orthodox daughter and her husband, for example, who, in keeping with strict Kosher law, eat only food they brought and only on their own plates. In this way, political and religious ideology further complicate the family's tenuous ecosystem.
All of the characters engage in looking backward; each is imbued with rich interior worlds. As a result, the tone is wistful and bittersweet. Their memories recall ordinary threads in the fabric that makes up everyday life -- applying calamine lotion to a child before day-camp, studying for high school tests, waking up in love in a college dorm room. The poignancy here is that Leo will never again experience these smaller rites, these lesser losses, that impart life -- and novels -- with meaning.
Noelle, the daughter who lives in Jerusalem, notes, "K'heref ayin. Like the blink of an eye. The whole world is like that for God." The world of this book is a generous offering, steadfast in its belief that after grief comes regeneration.
Jackie Reitzes is a writer and editor in New York City.