When a loved one dies, people rarely get time to grieve fully, or find words to express its strange reality. In Claire Donato’s harrowing, enlightened first novel, “Burial” (Tarpaulin Sky, 103 pages, $16), a young woman narrates from deep within her anguish. The dense, potent language captures that sense of the unreal that, for a time, pulls people in mourning to feel closer to the dead than the living.
The book begins as the unnamed woman arrives at a motel where she’ll stay for two days before her father’s funeral. With her perspective transformed by the chaos of grief, she calls the motel a morgue. “Check into the morgue with a bright yellow suitcase,” she says. “Check into the morgue stale from thinking.” Donato omits the word “I” from much of the book, which makes the narrator’s story feel universal, less about one person’s emotions than the will to use imagination to confront death.
Her depression, a natural stage of grief, leaves her bored at the motel, where “the sheets are repulsively clean.” Alone awaiting the funeral, she sees ghosts while TV sets drone in other rooms. “What is the lesson?” she asks. “Must a lesson be learned? Has anything happened at all?” After meeting the motel groundskeeper by chance, she considers “a little carnal disruption” to distract herself from grief, but it’s too insistent. “ ‘Hey, hey, hey,’ death says.”
Isolated, she observes how “the body remains disconnected from itself, invalidating the mind, which lacks logic.” Freed from logic, she invents new definitions for grief, calling it, “the hollow layer of the heart that delineates the distance between reasoning and space,” a force “which impairs, sobs, and shouts, and can scarcely explain the basis of its graceless origin.”
The language is fractured at times as her thoughts slide between terse poetry and lyricism. But an ingenious structure becomes visible below the narrator’s stream of consciousness. We learn that her recurring thoughts about fish, forests and freezing to death are related to her father, who fell through a frozen pond and drowned while deer hunting. It’s her urge to stay connected to him that has condensed months of grief into these days, justifying the book’s experimental style.
One of the more stunning images of despair comes when she thinks about the funeral. “A person dressed in black always blends into her absence, although her expression is soured by grief, shoved into the ground, hung upside-down from a tree until the gravedigger throws up.” Though gruesome, it’s a startlingly original and effective image to show her desire to purge the intense sadness, to imagine that her loss could pierce even the heart of a gravedigger.
Matthew Jakubowski is a Philadelphia-based writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.