Matters of Life and Death

Lily Gontard

Oh, small book of sorrow. Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother (HarperCollins) is a memoir written over two years by Helen Humphreys, in the form of a letter to her younger brother. Martin Humphreys was diagnosed with stage 4B pancreatic cancer at the age of forty-five, and died shortly thereafter, leaving his sister with a deep sense of loss and grief. Nocturne is not sentimental, but it is profoundly intimate. Humphreys writes in explicit detail of how the death affected her. The precision of her words can sometimes come across as robotic (allegro), which can distance her from the reader. But then there are flowing (adagio) sections where she isn’t shy to share with the reader how debilitating her grief can be. Revealing a weakness to a reader can cause her to either lose trust or feel empathy; I had the latter reaction. I don’t want to presume that the structure of Nocturne relies on musical terms, but the title and Martin’s profession as a composer, piano teacher and pianist lean in that direction. This memoir is a composition of facts, episodes, thoughts and emotions. Though it relies on death and grief to propel its storytelling arc, Humphreys also shares the comfort that simple things bring: her dog, time spent at her cottage. The message could be, “Yes, I am suffering, but I can still see beauty in life.” Nocturne is a short read, but not a light one. When I had finished reading, I had a sense of wanting to comfort Helen: this too shall pass.

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Lily Gontard

Lily Gontard is a writer whose fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in magazines including The Puritan, Cirque and Event. She lives in Whitehorse.


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