Read in a coulee with Brenda
Review by Jan
This is a slim volume but it packs a lot of heart in achingly beautiful, simple prose. The book opens with the pregnant Dora’s first act of defiance in choosing a copy of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” as her raffle prize over the whiskey her husband wanted. It transformed her drab existence….”this was the life she wanted: Freedom, Possibility. Beauty.’
Fast forward decades and this section of the book begins with Dora’s son, Ellis, who lost his wife and best friend 5 years ago. He is still in the depths of despair, and his grief and loneliness are heavy. We travel back and forth in time as Ellis gives us background into his childhood, his friendship with Michael, and his wife Annie.
Regarding the title: several references were made in the book about how Ellis needed to be better – better at showing emotion, making human connections. Is he the Tin Man? A reference not just to his job in an auto body shop, but to his heart?
The last half of the book is told in first person narrative by Ellis’s friend Michael, who fills in the large gaps in time and fits the pieces of the puzzle together for the reader.
This is in many ways a story of contrasts. Drab loneliness and color and beauty found in nature and art. It’s a story of bonding and friendship, but also love and loss, loneliness and simple human kindnesses. It’s about acceptance and finding our place in the world. And people are complicated…there are often stark contrasts within a person: Ellis wonders “how flowers and care can reside equally in a man of such rage”.
And love, it’s about love in all its forms: among friends, romantic love, the love between parent and child, and unrequited love. And the love and kindness showed to others. It’s about the beauty and hope that can be found in a simple piece of art. It’s the belief that “men and boys are capable of beautiful things.” Overshadowing it all is the tragic AIDS epidemic.
A few favorite quotes:
“I haven’t cried. But sometimes I feel as if my veins are leaking, as if my body is overwhelmed, as if I’m drowning from the inside.”
“But it was my humanness that led me to seek, that’s all. Led us all to seek. A simple need to belong somewhere.”
“I see how decisions are made, in moments like that, that change the trajectory of ones life.” How those decisions can change how one defines oneself.
“Autumn knocks on the window. I pull back the sliding doors and let it in. Lights from the meat market flicker and car light streak the gloom. Overhead the pulse of aeroplane wings replaces the stars. The flat is quiet. This is loneliness.”
“I wonder what the sound of a heartbreaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.”
As haunting and sad as this book was, it ends on a hopeful note. I really liked the message about belonging, acceptance and love and human kindness. This story and the characters are ones that will stay with me for a long time to come.
* I received my copy from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to EW, the publisher, and the author.