When I was approached by the author Sam Hayward with the offer of a review copy of her novel about a widow trying to rebuild her life in the first year after her bereavement, I couldn’t help but accept, because as a former widow myself I was very interested to see how she coped with the situation in the novel, having also been widowed in real life.
One of Sam Hayward’s coping mechanisms was to write a novel about it, dedicated to her late husband Leo.
A recurring theme of the story is the widely-reported phenomenon of the bereaved finding small white feathers unexpectedly after their loss, supposedly evidence of a guardian angel watching over them. I’d heard of that theory but had never examined it, so was interested to see how it was used in the book, and I could understand how it could be a comfort. When I lost my first husband 16 years ago, strange things happened that I couldn’t account for, all of which helped comfort me, and which I’d never have known about before.
How to Cope with Bereavement and Widowhood
For the record, my stance on bereavement is that each of us has to cope however feels right to us, and there are no set rules or guidelines. Some of the things I did e.g. returning to my full-time job two days after the funeral, surprised my friends, but it worked for me. (I had intended to return the day after the funeral, but inadvertently slept the clock round, emotionally drained.)
The way Susie Chester, the heroine of this gentle and thoughtful novel, fills the void includes dating a new man quite soon after her loss, and starting a small business making preserves. (I did the first but not the second – well, whatever gets you through the day!) Some readers might find the speed with which she does this surprising, but when you have had a happy marriage, as Susie’s (and mine) was, it’s a natural and healthy instinct to seek to replicate it sooner rather than later.
Mindful Storytelling in Touch with Nature
The story is told slowly and carefully, in a style that smacks of mindfulness practice, in which one learns to live in the moment to help cope with worries and stress. Susie constantly notices her surroundings and takes comfort in the natural world. She is in a privileged position, with no money worries and an idyllic house and large garden, and able to afford to employ a mysterious new gardener who turns up on her doorstep, and to convert her barn (a clue to the size of her garden!) to create a workshop when her new business gets too big for her kitchen.
The way Susie manages and responds to her grief is explained delicately and sensitively, and we have a sense of the void left in her life by the loss of her husband, which she needs to fill. She is torn between knowing her own mind and wanting to respect the advice of her friends, including her new gardener, a lovely older man to whom she’s not attracted as a potential boyfriend but whom she finds a mystical kind of comfort (no Lady Chatterley storyline here!) I well remember the dilemma from my own experience the eagerness of others to tell me, with the best intentions, what they thought was good or bad for me, but sometimes feeling angry or astonished at their misreading of my feelings and needs.
White Feature Motif
The small white feathers appear from early on, providing a sense of her being watched over throughout the book by someone or something beyond her circle of friends. We follow in detail the development of her first relationship after her marriage, interwoven with the continuing processing of her grief and her need to move on. I liked the way this was accompanied by the passage of the seasons, suggesting that all that is happening is a natural, healthy and inevitable process. It was a nice touch – whether intentional or subconscious on the part of the author – that her new career revolves around another kind of processing, turning ingredients into preserves using herbs that have legendary aphrodisiac powers. Very neat.
Susie is never self-pitying or over-dramatic, but is always constructive and strong, perhaps not previously having realised just how strong she was. Her progress really rings true to me, and in keeping with my own experience. Writing it in the first person gives it an engaging directness and candour. The text frequently slips naturally into an address to her husband, as if he’s still present, which to her he is and always will be, in her thoughts at least (no ghosts here), no matter how her grief recedes as she rebuilds her life.
While the first part of the book is carefully paced, the final part felt a bit rushed to me, and I would have liked to know more about the last stage (no plot spoilers here though). It felt a little unbalanced as a result. I’d also expected the white feathers to feature a little more, and perhaps find more explanation, but on balance I think the book works better to have the mystical elements left unexplained. As any widow or widower will tell you, mystical stuff does happen after bereavement, and in my experience it was always comforting and reassuring, never scary or upsetting.
In summary, this is a gratifying, well-written and ultimately uplifting read that I think would be of interest, comfort and inspiration to any widow, and to anyone who wants to understand the grieving process better through fiction. It will certainly resonate with anyone who has been there. A remarkably accomplished first novel, too – I hope there will be many more from this competent and polished author.
Beautifully presented, the cover and title were just right, and I hope they help this book find the audience it deserves.