I picked up Joyful by Robert Hillman because of it’s rather beautiful cover, and have been left feeling a bit ambivalent about it.
Set in Australia, it is the story of the wild, maddened grief of two men after the deaths of one’s wife and the other’s two children. Both are tormented, slightly demented, wading through their grief and sadness, almost but not quite drowning – at the big country house called Joyful, that Leon has inherited from his wife Tess.
Leon loved how Tess looked, adored to dress her in his collection of haute couture, and was very jealous of her lovers – despite insisting that their marriage be strictly platonic – as passion is messy and overwhelming and vulgar. His passionate grief is all that and more – in fact, like another person’s self-absorbing passion, it gets slightly annoying and frustrating and overly dependent on the kindness/indulgence of others.
Emmanuel is grieving for the loss, separately, of his two adult children. His wife is alongside him, but he is grieving against her, rather than with her, and his grief is mixed with great anger and distress about the choices his adult children made in their lives which force him to confront his unusual heritage as the self-exiled son of an anglophile, Wordsworth-worshipping Kurd. Emmanuel appears plunged into the erratic behaviour of madness a bit more whole-heartedly than Leon. It didn’t successfully read, I thought, as though he was actually mad, he was just being nasty and hateful, completely in control, just remarkably angry – which seems a valid response. Although Emmanuel cannot be said to be in his perfect mind, the author’s depiction of his disarray does not ring true as ‘madness’, although I do think he captures the utter destabilising force that grief can be.
It is an interesting and not necessarily untrue depiction of the aftermath of death, the devastation of survival. I didn’t like the characters but I think I liked the book. As you can perhaps tell, I really didn’t feel much sympathy for either man in the end and got a bit fed-up with them both, and I felt sorry for everyone else around them who is also grieving but has to indulge Leon and Emmanuel’s’s assertions of bigger, greater, griefier grief than anyone else – ever. It sort of feels like this is the first thing they have ever really felt and so they are undone by it. The author has been very clever, as I do think this is an amazing examination of how grief overtakes some people. I am glad I did keep reading the book, and I did enjoy the beautiful writing – and the lovely, unusual cover…
What do you think?