Book Review: WHAT WE LOSE, a meditation on grief

clemmons, zinzi - what we loseWhat We Lose
Zinzi Clemmons

Growing up, Thandi fell into an in-between space as the child of a South African and African-American. The blacks of her hometown, Philadelphia, didn’t consider her one of them, nor did the white kids. Yet, her mother anchored her. When her mother passed away from breast cancer during her freshman year in college, Thandi became unmoored. As she grew into adulthood and became a mother, Thandi danced with the grief of her mother’s death, the pain of her mother’s past under apartheid, and her own sense of being always out of place.

An eclectic novel, What We Lose includes excerpts from blogs and memoirs, photographs, figures, and charts. (In some cases, I wasn’t sure if these were made up by the author for the story or actual source material until I looked at the credits page, something not usually found in a novel!) Chapters range from a sentence long to a few pages.

Clemmons deftly sketches the impact of a long illness, the shape of absence taken by grief, and the desperate ways people behave to escape it. At the same time, I felt removed from the emotion of the characters, perhaps because of the structure or tone of the writing, though a quote from the book also seems appropriate:

If you have never eaten a tangerine, however much the other person loves you and wants to help you understand what a tangerine tastes like, they will never succeed by describing it. The reality of the tangerine goes beyond ideas.

Maybe for grief, each person’s experience is so unique, they can never adequately describe it. I think this novel will probably be most interesting to those who have suffered a similar loss or to those who are interested in novels that play with form, structure, and narrative.