O brother, where art thou?

30th April 2004 at 01:00
A rare account of life after the death of a sibling is a moving affirmation of existence for Victoria Neumark

Name all the Animals: a memoir of the child left behind

By Alison Smith

Simon amp; Schuster pound;12.99

Loss of a sibling is one of the least written about, least-often acknowledged losses: dead children, parents, spouses and lovers have all been much-mourned in literature, while brothers and sisters have had far less of a look-in. But who is a closer companion than one we've grown up with? Alison Smith's deeply touching memoir charts the three years following the death of her 18-year-old brother, Roy, with whom she was so close that her family used to call both or either of them "Alroy".

From the cataclysmic news that blasts the family one summer morning, 15-year-old convent schoolgirl Alison reels out into her life, unsure as to who she is and what to do. For a long time, her parents, trying to protect their only remaining chick, hide from her the painful details of Roy's car-crash death, seeking refuge in their deep-rooted Catholicism, registering her for driving lessons, but failing to let her take the wheel.

Like most parents they always tried to protect their children, and used to bless them every morning with saints' relics, naming each body part with a blessing, and, as the children think, naming all the animals to keep them safe too. Everyone else in her small US town tiptoes round Alison as well, until she is desperate to meet people who are still innocent of the ghastly knowledge of Roy's death; "before people", as she calls them.

Smith's clear-eyed, tender portraits of her family and teachers are filled with gentle comedy and lyrical sadness. She reaches through her own pain and the warp and weft of teenage life to some universal understandings about how we deal with death.

Death has become a social misfit. In a society that seems to tip between victimhood and callousness, the bereaved are urged to blame and seek redress from others, or to drag themselves away from the point of pain - "move on" as the cliche has it. Unless it can be spoken of in these terms, briskly and to some end, we would rather not hear of it. Yet, sooner or later, each of us comes to realise the experience of loss is not like that.

There is a tangible emptiness; as Shakespeare puts it in King John, "grief puts on the habit of my absent child, walks up and down with me".

Whatever books proclaim in the way of stages and timeframes of mourning - the most famous being that of psychiatrist and specialist on the subject of death Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross, which Alison Smith's mother embraced - people endure unhappiness in their own way. A hidden, unwelcome visitor, death accompanies the bereaved and marks them apart from their surroundings.

Alison feels like a ghost to herself. For those who care, it can be terrible to see the suffering and not know how to help; for the bereaved, loneliness compounds the sorrow.

Formulae rarely help, for retribution, even if justified, still does not restore; and however much we "move on" with our lives, we move on without the dead person.

Alison's parents refuse to prosecute the other driver's family - "He's lost a wife too," as her father puts it. They are harassed: the insurance company investigates them to see if they are complicit in their son's death, much to the bewildered disgust of Mr Smith. Mrs Smith "plays Kremlin" (acting like Stalin, as Alison perceives it, in wiping out anything unpleasant or unacceptable), by going on the same summer holidays, rebuilding the camper van. But the pain endures. Meanwhile, Alison is staggering around in her life - working at school, hanging out with her best friend, the loyal and bossy Mary Elizabeth, earning money on the convent switchboard - yet inside herself, secretly, always looking for her brother. She saves food for him from every meal, in a tattered, greasy brown paper bag, refusing to give it to the stray dog he always fed; she goes to the secret dens they shared; she re-enacts their games and stories.

She tries to be as good as she can to get him back (but how good would that have to be?) and so, inevitably almost, she becomes anorexic.

Not that she, or we, realise this for a long time, as other people's reactions, of horrified pity and dismay do not pierce the blanket of grief.

What does pierce it is an assignment for a class debate on homosexuality, and her own first sexual encounter, with a girl classmate.

This is one of the very few mainstream accounts of lesbian sexual experience that rings true - it seems thrilling and intimate, yet neither over-explicit nor lurid. Terry and Alison sleep in the school one night and get caught. There is (veiled) trouble, but the lover is the one who suffers and has to leave school. People are still too busy protecting Alison. Even her mother, initially shocked, muffles out the truth.

People protect Alison when she goes on school visits, when she gets voted on to the court of the May Queen, when she goes penitentially to do sewing with the schizophrenic women who have been lobotomised in the state mental hospital. They protect her so much, trying to prevent any more pain slashing at her parents and at her, that she cannot feel her own existence, still less shape it. She keeps going back to the fort her brother rebuilt every summer, keeps trying to join him. But the only way to join dead people is to die.

The turning point comes on Alison's own 18th birthday. Like many other bereaved people, she cannot imagine how she will live longer than her beloved brother, whose short life has been endlessly revised in her mind (his knobbly knees, his rumpled hair, his running, his university ambitions, his secret drinking and smoking, kissing girls, "I'm glad he tried some of those things that summer," she says). Ironically, he had been on the point of leaving their family life together; he had already told her he no longer wanted to be called Alroy. She takes the car out on the same stretch of road at the same time of day and waits for the crash to happen.

But it doesn't. Instead, she buys and eats an apple. Its juice sparkles in her mouth. She feels hungry.

And so, life does go on. Not the kind of fake, shiny, happy life the cliches talk about, but the real scarred, glowing, broken, growing, messy business we're all in. Watch out for Alison Smith's next book.

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