'Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it," Joan Didion tells us in The Year of Magical Thinking, nominated last week as a National Book Award finalist.
Didion very unexpectedly reached that place on Dec. 30, 2003, when her husband of almost 40 years, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died just as they sat down to dinner. Were this not calamitous enough, the two had just returned from a visit to see their adult daughter, their only child, gravely ill in a nearby hospital.
A writer all her life ("Slouching Towards Bethlehem," "Democracy," "A Book of Common Prayer" among others), few are more expert than Didion at cleanly parsing thoughts and feelings. And yet, when Didion found herself launched into this strange new territory of acute loss, her own keen verbal and analytical skills failed her, as did those of others.
Nothing, she writes, can really prepare any of us for "the unending absence that follows [a loss], the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself."
But Didion is a writer and so write she did. What she has produced, with remarkable clarity, is a record of her thoughts and feelings during her first year of bereavement.
It's a work that touches on surprisingly uncharted territory. When Didion tried to turn to books for help ("I had been trained since childhood ... go to the literature"), she found little solace.
There were fictional representations of grief (the widower Hermann Castorp in "The Magic Mountain") and poets (Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden) who dealt with mourning, but Didion found these too abstract. She turned to self-help literature, only to label most of it "useless."
Clinical literature, she says, was more helpful, if only because it made her feel less alone. She identified strongly with studies of animals who have lost their mates (dolphins who refuse to eat when bereaved, geese who become disoriented and cannot fly).
Didion herself went through the motions of living - and the very genuine effort of continuing to care for her daughter - but was appalled to realize how very disoriented she remained. Weeks later she couldn't throw away Dunne's shoes, because she still believed he might need them.
If Didion's narrative sounds heartrending, it is - utterly so. But at the same time, it is a work of much majesty.
Her refusal to accept facile consolations and her willingness to explore frightening new territory - questions of what she calls "the shallowness of sanity" - is an act of courage in itself.
At the same time, writing the book is an act of compassion, as it helps to remind all of us how often we fail to offer the bereaved anything truly helpful.
(The only truly perceptive advice Didion says she saw anywhere was in a 1922 Emily Post book on etiquette. Grieving family members should be wordlessly given chicken broth and tea, Post wrote. "Those in distress want no food, but if it is handed them, they will mechanically take it.")
But "The Year of Magical Thinking" is also something more. In an era when we are most accustomed to reading accounts of marriages that damage, it is particularly touching to read about a decades-long partnership that thrived.
Didion and Dunne lived and worked together throughout their adult lives, without the rivalry and friction many assume must accompany such an arrangement. (She tells of her last birthday when Dunne read aloud to her from one of her own novels and then told her, "Don't ever tell me you can't write. That's my birthday present to you.")
Their lives were privileged (trips to Hawaii, Paris, homes in New York, and California, dinners at Mortons, socializing with the rich and famous) yet they were framed by a sweet domesticity.
The book is laced with a good bit of medical detail, but readers who don't want that much information need not dwell there. Such passages are not central to this story. Largely, they function to help us understand Didion's struggle for control. In her world, she explains, "Information was control."
And yet despite Didion's struggles to believe in her daughter's security, she lost that battle as well. Two weeks after the book was done, her daughter died. Didion decided not to revise the text.
She was wise to refuse. It's hard to imagine what could have been added to what she already gave us. We her readers are left simply to admire both her bravery and her skill, and to offer whatever intelligent compassion we can from afar.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.