What We Lose: A Novel

  • By Zinzi Clemmons
  • Viking
  • 224 pp.

An emotionally charged tale of grief, rage, and the resilience of the human spirit

What We Lose: A Novel

Zinzi Clemmons’ debut novel reads more like memoir than fiction. “Write what you know” goes the old adage. Clemmons clearly is writing of what she knows firsthand, from the inside — a confluence of personal, sociological, historical, and medical experience. She tells protagonist Thandi’s story from both the perspective of a marginalized outsider and an insider.

Thandi has a foot in two countries — the United States and South Africa — two cultures, and two races. She, like Clemmons, is the child of a white American academic and a South African woman. She belongs and doesn’t belong in a white suburban school outside of Philadelphia, in an Ivy League college, and in the Johannesburg suburb where her mother’s family lives.

Clemmons knows and vividly evokes what it is to grieve and to claw your way through. She knows the tension between adversity, discrimination, and privilege. She knows what she writes, and the reader believes her.

Thandi, like Clemmons, has lost her mother to breast cancer. She grieves and she rages. Anger is part of every grief: anger at the beloved for leaving, anger at the self for surviving. Thandi rages at herself for not being a better daughter, her father for beginning to live again.

She grieves and rages that breast cancer remains a disease disproportionately fatal to black women. She grieves and rages over her personal loss and experience, and at racism, sexism, epidemiology, sociology, and history. Thandi jumps off the page: intelligent, sexy, desperate, and determined. She emerges from despair to throw herself at life with a vengeance.

Does that sound like a lot to pack into 200 pages? It is. This spare, concentrated book is, like its protagonist, difficult, brave, and honest. The author, in her acknowledgement, accurately terms this “a weird little book.” Yes, What We Lose is unusual. A novel, but really a hybrid genre: a fictionalized memoir; a heartfelt, heart-rending rant; an abstract of a longer thesis.

Here, indeed, the personal is also very much political and sociological. And sprinkled throughout the pages are footnoted quotations from diverse sources: Nelson Mandela, Adrienne Rich, and others — like excerpts from a personal anthology.

The thin, blurred line between author and character can be distracting. I paused sometimes in my reading, in believing the story, to puzzle over the possible convergence or divergence in the author and her character’s lifelines.

This may be, as Clemmons says, a “weird little book.” But it’s also strong and honest. As a psychotherapist and writer, I know it will be a meaningful addition to hospice and biblio-therapy reading lists. Fittingly, the title comes from a pamphlet Thandi’s family receives from hospice.

With What We Lose, Clemmons contributes something new, contemporary, and relevant to the literature of mourning and enduring. Like other books in this cross-genre class, it’s not a eulogy — not a recollection of the deceased — but a chronicle of the survivor’s journey.

Though very different, What We Lose reminds me most of H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald — another weird, wonderful book that explores grief, love, and saving graces. Clemmons’ novel will be a certain kind of guide and companion, like C.S. Lewis’ memoir, A Grief Observed, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s post-kidnapping diary, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead.

What We Lose may even find a place on the shelf that includes William Maxwell’s closely autobiographical novel, They Came Like Swallows, which brilliantly captures a child’s experience of maternal loss, and Tove Jansson’s quiet, remarkable The Summer Book, about a young child living with her grandmother after losing her mother.

All of these books are different, yet all are related. Loss is a universal leveling experience. Write what you know. Clemmons has known it, gets it, and writes it. As Thandi says, “I am acquainted with fear. If I stay inside it long enough, root my heels in deeper, it doesn’t feel scary anymore. It feels like home.”

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams (Apprentice House Press), was inspired by the detainment of Japanese diplomats at a Pennsylvania hotel in 1945. Her story collection, Contents Under Pressure (Broadkill River Press), was nominated for the National Book Award.

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