When death takes something from you give it back

I read When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back on the train to the city where Naja Marie Aidt was raised, Copenhagen. She wrote it a long journey away from there, back in Brooklyn, where she now lives. But it was at home in Copenhagen that her son died. He was just 25. And it is as a mother that Aidt writes: “Died on 16 March 2015, at 3:45 p.m. You weighed 194 pounds and were 6 feet 4 inches long.”

Aidt writes beautifully about her son, and about her relationship with him, and the enviably strong bonds with her family and friends that get her through the devastation of losing him. Not being a parent myself, what I’d like to look at here is her piercing insight into that initial shock, and what if feels like. I remember talking in quote marks too, in a much-needed spurts of black humour; we asked each other how we felt “at this sad time”. Aidt nails it: “How ‘are’ ‘you’ doing ‘now’? A little ‘better’. Have ‘you’ had any ‘sleep’ at all? Yes, ‘I’ ‘slept’ a little.”

Aidt describes a visceral, intense experience, the body going numb to anything beyond immediate physical sensations. The sheer rage…

When grief is very raw, you can’t even think, let alone write. You might not even be able to hold a pen at all. Why write anything down when there is no future, and even the present feels unreal?

Aidt is extraordinarily good at writing down what this feels like. And Denise Newman is extraordinarily good at expressing it in English translation. Understandably for a book that came out so soon (and yes, in this context two years for the original is very very soon), it is fragmentary, like a cross between a diary and a commonplace book, studded with quotes from other literature, references to classical mythology, and flashes of memory. Yet each fragment is so forceful that it cuts through to you. Aidt is clearly a poet.

Which makes this book good for reading when you aren’t really up to reading, at all. Baboon is her only other book in English that I know of. I’m looking forward to reading it, and seeing where she goes next.

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