When her longtime friend and mentor commits suicide, the unnamed narrator of Sigrid Nunez’s new novel can’t wrap her head around his loss. In “The Friend,” the narrator — a writer — confronts living with an unfinished relationship. Unexpectedly, she inherits her friend’s elderly Great Dane, Apollo. Her process of grieving becomes a professional struggle as well as a personal challenge.
This puzzling gift becomes a complicated burden. Not only does the writer find it hard to live without her friend, but she’s charged with caring for a pet in mourning, one that violates the terms of her lease. No heartwarming tale of pet ownership, “The Friend” presents a meditation on the raw experience of losing someone who is neither lover nor family yet who occupies a distinctive place in the lives of those left behind.
Nunez’s 2010 memoir, “Sempre Susan,” took an unsentimental look at her relationship with David Grieff and his mother, Susan Sontag. For a short time during Nunez’s earliest days as a writer, the couple lived with Sontag. Although the relationship faded, Sontag’s influence and ambition lingered.
Long after her death, Sontag occupies a unique place in Nunez’s education and writing, which resonates within this deeply honest but unsentimental novel.
With enormous heart and eloquence, Nunez explores cerebral responses to loss — processed through the writer’s life — while also homing in on the physical burden felt by those left behind. An animal’s experience with mourning stands in stark contrast to humans’. Dogs, the narrator muses, “Don’t commit suicide. They don’t weep. But they can and do fall to pieces. They can and do have their hearts broken. They can and do lose their minds.”
Apollo is not a lovable dog, but as metaphor and character, he grounds the story in the reality of facts. While people may violently abandon their lives, survivors largely carry on. Writing is no less simple.
“You write a thing down because you’re hoping to get a hold on it,” the narrator says. “You write about experiences partly to understand what they mean, partly not to lose them to time. To oblivion. But there’s always the danger of the opposite happening. Losing the memory of the experience itself to the memory of writing about it.”
Nunez offers no easy solutions; instead, she offers the solace that comes from accepting change. Friendship comes with the possibility of great joy and deep sorrow. Surviving suicide throws us into a realm outside words. “The Friend” exposes an extraordinary reserve of strength waiting to be found in storytelling and unexpected companionship.
Lauren LeBlanc is a senior editor at Guernica magazine. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter at @lequincampe.
By: Sigrid Nunez.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 224 pages, $25.