Sometimes it feels good to just have a little cry, and you’ll have to keep the therapeutic benefits of sobbing in mind if you plan on reading If You Hear Me by Pascale Quiviger, translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler. It’s a daunting read knowing it centers on the fracturing of a family’s life after the once-hardy father falls in a workplace accident, but there’s good reason this is an award-winning book. Just a few pages in it will quickly become clear you are in the hands of a masterful storyteller (and translator!), and despite the grief-ridden subject matter, you will find mercy in the beautiful writing and powerful characterization. Trust me on this one, it’s worth the discomfort of a few teary reading sessions.
David is a strong construction worker with an energetic 7-year-old son Bertrand and a practical wife and librarian named Caroline. The book opens with David’s fall from some scaffolding at work, and we quickly realize that the occasional italicized sections are David’s inner thoughts, which continue throughout the novel. He is unable to speak or communicate at all, but his inner consciousness is still very active, and he can observe what is going on around him. The majority of the book is told from Caroline’s perspective; her struggle to maintain a routine for Bertrand as her husband lies in a coma in a hospital, and her attempts to remain optimistic in the increasingly troubling prognoses. Every few pages we get a glimpse into the inner life of David; what he is seeing, how he is feeling, his thoughts when he senses Bertrand or Caroline is near. This perspective is surprisingly rich as his subconscious travels outside of the hospital, even moving into the history of his parents and their experiences in Poland. The challenges and blessings of a universal health care system are also touched upon; the complicated world of navigating a hospital on a long-term basis, the necessary decoding of a doctor’s advice, or the simple awkwardness of managing a loved one’s decline without their help or advice.
Very rarely will a book make me cry openly, it only happens about once every few hundred books or so, but not surprisingly, this one made me sob before, and even during, my Pilates workout that I did right after reading it. I was literally doing leg lifts while I thought of how crushing this story was, and then proceeded to cry alone in my basement. But instead of feeling sorry for me (or maybe just embarrassed?), take this as a reason to read this book. Nothing shocking happens in the plot, within the first pages you understand what is going to happen, yet still, I couldn’t help but become emotionally invested in this family’s situation. Bertrand’s unwavering belief that his father is going to wake up is the most painful thing to witness, and yet Caroline’s strength was also a point of sadness; her almost immediate acceptance of her situation, and her anger about it was all understandable.
The family’s drama is set against a city shifting through the seasons. David’s absence in their life makes room for other things including a reconciliation with other family members, and a prolonged stint in the city during summertime when they would normally be vacationing elsewhere. It is through this forced stasis that Caroline begins to observe the world around her in a different way; the people, the trees, even their regular bus route. Although her situation is tragic in every way, it’s heartening to follow along on her minor victories and glimpses of hope; the changing of a shower curtain to something more girlish and preferred feels like a monumental step forward in every sense of the word.
Despite these glimmers of optimism, grief in all its forms inevitably overshadows the entire novel, but Quiviger’s stunning words are a small mercy in all of it. When Caroline realizes Bertrand has noticed more than she thought, her phrasing struck me as particularly poignant because it is applicable to so many traumas that kids experience, no matter how desperately parents try to protect them:
“Caroline places her hand on her son’s head. What else does he know? What has he figured out? Everything going on around him is beyond his ken. His life is like a film for grown-ups that she took him to see by mistake.”-If You Hear Me by Pascale Quiviger, page 279
Even re-reading that makes my heart ache, but in a good way. Books like these are difficult to read, but so worth the effort and tears, if only to remind you of what’s worth cherishing in your own world.