Monday, September 23, 2013

Nocturne by Helen Humphreys

Helen Humphreys is one of my very favourite writers (The Reinvention of LoveThe Frozen ThamesCoventryWild DogsThe Lost Garden; etc.). Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother is a contemplation of existence, grief, and the solitary nature of creative work. I find Humphrey's calm writer's voice deeply comforting.

"Everything becomes a memorial. This wooden chair is a memorial to that tree."

Nocturne is a small volume with 45 brief chapters, the number of years that Humphrey's younger brother Martin lived before dying of pancreatic cancer. My copy has flags every few pages, marking beautiful passages. It is written in a conversational style, addressed to Martin.

"I've been thinking about the human soul, about the presence of the unseen in our lives, about how, the moment you died, I felt you leave. What was it that left? And why did I feel that you did leave? It wasn't simply that a light was turned off, that your consciousness was stopped, but rather that you moved swiftly from your dead body and went somewhere else. But where did you go?

Martin was an accomplished pianist and music was his life's work. The score of John Cage's 4'33" is the memoir's epigraph, a poignant choice. If you aren't familiar with it, 4'33" is a composition of silence. I've encountered it in a number of books recently, including When Women Were Birds and A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Humphreys was present when Martin performed the piece. "I remember the nervous laughter from the audience as you sat down at the piano, hands folded together in your lap, back straight, and didn't play a note. That laughter subsided into an uncomfortable silence, and that awkward self-consciousness was followed by a growing attentiveness, all in the space of five minutes."

"Is the noise of music really better than the silence it is invading?"

"Were you made in part by the music that you played? And if so, when you died, the silence we were left with was that same silence that exists in a concert hall the moment after the music stops -- a silence that still tastes of the sound it carried."

Humphreys writes that her brother's death forced her to slow down and experience the present moment. "This may be why the completely unexpected happened and I fell in love again. It saddens me that you'll never meet Nancy, and that my new life is so far removed from my old one."

Nancy Jo Cullen and Humphreys will both be at the Vancouver's Writers Fest this year and I'm looking forward to seeing them there.

Readalikes: When Women Were Birds (Terry Tempest Williams); Name All the Animals (Alison Smith).

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