A beautiful wrought novel now re-released, Michael Kimball’s Us tells the story of death from three divergent angles.
Originally released in the UK with Fourth Estate and now re-released via Tyrant Books, Us is a mountainous novel of death and dying. Michael Kimball is a writer whose books revel in death – his first novel How the Family Got Away focuses on the loss of a child, and his third novel Dear Everybody is the collected notes and letters of a man who commits suicide – but Kimball always uses these stories of dying to reveal what is left when someone passes, a revelation expertly explored in new territory with the re-release of Us.
The bulk of Us is spent telling the story of a husband and wife: how she had a seizure, how she was in a coma, how she came out of a coma, how she returned home, how her husband took care of her, how she still got worse, and how she eventually died, in their home, on her own time. The remarkable aspect of this portion of the novel is the way in which Kimball utilizes the husband’s voice as a narrative staple, managing to avoid sentimentality by harnessing a perspective that remains almost oddly objective, removed, much as we become when a body slips from us, when the shock takes over, when we no longer know what to do:
My wife wasn’t very alive then. She couldn’t keep herself alive, but there were doctors and nurses who could. There were machines that could feed her and that could help her lungs to breathe and her heart to beat. But one of the doctors told me that since her eyes didn’t open, and she didn’t seem to hear anything that he said to her or move any on her own, that my wife probably wouldn’t be alive without the machines and that she might not be alive in the morning with them.
Love, in Kimball’s narration, becomes about caring for what remains rather than dwelling on what has left us. There are moments of love in Us, endearing love written in poetic language, but it is carefully and sparingly placed, jarring us from the objective lists and explanations of the husband only when we are just settling in to the character’s loss, only when, like mourners, we are beginning to accept this dying.
But Kimball, an author whose brilliance is never satisfied with single-layered narratives, makes Us much more than the story of a husband and wife. Firstly, he interjects the voice of the wife in the manner of brief interior monologues, each one confirming what the husband feels and does, giving the reader a beautiful new understanding of a love that seems to straddle death:
They were so gentle with me when they carried me and lowered me down into the grave. The dirt and the rocks sounded like a heavy rain falling down on top of the casket that would not let up. Then it sounded muffled and then hush and then it got quiet. But I could hear you driving away and I could hear you thinking about me. I wanted you to hear me back so that you didn’t miss me so much or for so long.
Secondly, Kimball internally frames the story by adding his own voice, sharing personal recollections of his grandparents’ deaths – the hospitals, the denial of hospice, the division of belongings – and this layer, the final and most private of Us, is what makes the novel such a complex and poignant novel:
I keep trying to imagine what my grandfather must have been thinking while my grandmother was in and out of the hospital. They both knew that she was going to die soon. They both knew that they had a finite amount of time left with each other after they had been together for so many years. I keep thinking about those last days that they had together, what they must have thought and felt and did, and how those days might have been different from all the other days that they had already lived together.
The central story of Us is good – demanding, calculating, cold – but the addition of the wife’s voice from within her coma (and later, from her deathbed), pushes the novel one level deeper; and then, through the use of Kimball as both writer and subject, Us reaches into truly intricate and compelling planes, creating a beautifully wrought book that asks readers to process death from all angles, with the weight of objectivity yet without forgetting our humanity, and the love that lies at its core.