On the painful road to recovery;Books

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
THE DISAPPEARANCE. By Genevi ve Jurgensen. Translated by Adriana Hunter. Flamingo pound;12.99.

This account by a mother grieving for two dead children is a short, searing read, similar in emotional intensity to Before I Say Goodbye, Ruth Picardie's chronicle of dying of cancer - it's as traumatic and as uplifting. While Picardie used her book to celebrate the few months that she had to live, Jurgensen invents her daughters' lives in a vacuum while rebuilding her own.

In letters to a friend, she constantly imagines how Elise and Mathilde would have been if they had not been killed in 1980 in a road accident, aged four and seven. With their death, to quote Jurgensen, "a volcano spilt its ashes over us".

The tragedy has represented year zero for the author and her husband Laurent - she refers to the birth of her third daughter, Elvire, in "the fifty-first week of grieving". The reader ticks off the agonising hours, days and weeks alongside her as she struggles to remember the dead children separately - "I always say 'Mathilde and Elise'. When they were alive we only said 'Mathilde' or 'Elise'. Their common death has made them into Siamese twins."

Eventually the girls' height charts are painted over on the bedroom wall and their mother only gets out Elise's school satchel from time to time. Some dilemmas never grow any less painful; she still hesitates when people ask her how many children she has, unsure whether to tell her story to a stranger.

This book, first published in France in 1994, has been part of a long recovery process for Jurgensen, who has worked as a magazine journalist and speech therapist and is a former student of the philosopher Bruno Bettelheim ("I resemble my former professor," she writes. "I live to understand and I understand to live.") She now campaigns for road safety and also, in this book, campaigns for the bereaved in her advice to the paralysed onlookers who don't know what to do or say. Do it, she says. Write the letter, pick the phone up. It all helps.

Geraldine Brennan

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