Review: When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman

The engulfing panic of losing someone indispensable to you stops time. Needs and emotions are put on hold: hunger, sleep, lust, and ambition are stifled by mourning. From this numbness, how do you kickstart your life? How do you begin to make sense out of death and absence? In Naja Marie Aidt’s new book When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back, Carl’s Book, the author gives us a survival manual. After her twenty-five-year-old son dies unexpectedly, her life is so profoundly affected that even language is obliterated. The author is left with few tools to convey who her son was and what his death meant to her. A string of sentences, musings, journal entries, lines of her own poetry and verses by Stéphane Mallarmé, Jacques Roubaud, and Anne Carson have to make due. At this, Aidt is very adept; to transmit such a poignant (though at times saccharine) account while utilizing this code is no small feat. At the same time, this narrative strategy helps her overcome one of the challenges of writing about heartbreak—that grief is monotonous and redundant. Advancing a conversation on mourning is difficult because it often falls back on pain. Since Aidt’s work is not in chronological order, she breaks the loop and is free to explore a wider range of emotions. In addition to grief, she delves into anger, her love for her children and the succor that fellow grievers provide. 

Aidt doesn’t reveal the circumstances of her son’s death until the very end of the book. This feels appropriate since by that point, she is able to regain a bit of mental stability. But it also serves another purpose. By disclosing this information at the end of her catharsis, she interrogates the reader. Does it really matter how he died? Are we, as outsiders, going to think differently of him once we find out how he died? There are many versions of the truth, but for Aidt, pain only has one dimension. 

The book would have benefited from a more balanced approach to who Carl was, and Aidt misses the opportunity to render the relationship with her son in a more nuanced light. The interactions that she chooses to analyze are mostly positive, painting a portrait of a man who was athletic, compassionate, wise and clever. When describing her son, Aidt glows with pride: “You grew. You were invincible. You were strong…And there you stood. Straight, perfectly symmetrical. The same when you were grown up.” As often occurs in eulogy, Aidt shields the reader from any negative aspects of his personality. The narrative could have been more compelling if we were privy to Carl’s human, fallible side. 

There is no epiphany or sudden enlightenment that brings Aidt healing. But she does begin to find her way back to writing and her lost language. Near the end of the book, she writes, “I’m deeply dependent on my husband and my friends. Once in a while I manage to write to my friends. They write to me. Their letters keep me alive…just barely alive.” As her life continues, the pain is not diminished but instead incorporated; it is assimilated into her being. She writes, “I think about my dead child; his time and his life are folded into me. I gave birth to him. I must hold his death…I bear his spirit in my body. I bear your entire life.” 

Aidt’s book is about more than just feelings and thoughts. It’s about a writer who crawls her way back to sanity one word at a time. 

About the author

Fernanda Hong is a native Costa Rican currently earning her MFA degree in Fiction at Columbia University. A former biologist, she was involved in various conservation programs dealing with endangered species. In 2014 she moved to New York City in order to complete her degree and is currently exploring the many possibilities of digital storytelling.

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