A grief encounter with love and death

<i>Thanksgiving </i>by Michael Dibdin (Faber &amp; Faber, &pound;9.99)
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The Independent Culture

She may have spent most of her life as a sealed-off spinster, but Emily Dickinson knew a thing or two about the human heart. And she wrote one of the great defining comments about the nature of grief in her aptly named poem "After Great Pain":

She may have spent most of her life as a sealed-off spinster, but Emily Dickinson knew a thing or two about the human heart. And she wrote one of the great defining comments about the nature of grief in her aptly named poem "After Great Pain":

This is the Hour of Lead - Recollected, if outlived, As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow - First - chill - then Stupor - then the letting go -

Of course, in our psychobabble age of deodorised sensibilities, we rarely acknowledge the volcanic nature of grief, let alone its ability to drag its recipient into uncharted terrain in which all sense of logic and emotional reason is lost. We no longer accept the notion that the "stupor" of grief can so overwhelm us that we simply cannot "let go". These days, we demand "closure", that inane Americanism, which embraces the spurious idea that tragedy can be permanently anaesthetised or filed away under "Shit happens".

Well, there is certainly no sense of closure in Michael Dibdin's dark and unsettling new novel, Thanksgiving. On the contrary, this haunting, haunted journey to the frontiers of grief reads like one of those nightmares that don't end when you jolt awake.

That's the way it seems to Anthony. He is a middle-aged British journalist of middling talent and reputation. Once a refugee both from the mildewy depressiveness of his native country and a marriage that went very wrong, he met an American woman named Lucy on a plane. After a long, boozy flight, he realised he was in love. Fortunately, she also fell for him. Before you could say "Change of life", he married Lucy and moved to America.

Now Lucy is dead, the victim of a horrendous air crash. And, though he doesn't realise it, Anthony has become unhinged - to the point where he sets out into the wastelands of Nevada in search of Lucy's first husband.

This specious moron, with the redneck name of Darryl Bob Allen, regales Anthony with tales of Lucy in bed and also comes up with such enlightened insights as: "You know the real problem with fucking? It's not the Darwinian angle... No, what always bugged me about the whole thing is you can't look at them and fuck them at the same time."

For reasons he really doesn't understand, Anthony has purchased a gun before the meeting. And though I am not going to reveal too much of the plot, shortly after the meeting, the police want to interview Anthony... even though he knows he is innocent.

Suddenly, Anthony finds himself leaving town in a hurry. He boards a plane to Paris, heading for his family's holiday home in the south of France, where he plans to hole up and await his inevitable arrest and repatriation to the state of Nevada - where they still execute murderers in the good old electric chair. But as he contemplates his fate, Lucy envelops his mind.

Without question, Thanksgiving does read like a skewed, maniacal dream - an eerie mélange of bereavement and anger, set in an American landscape that is both vacuous and threatening. Indeed, like any sensible expatriate, Dibdin (currently resident in Seattle) is vituperative when it comes to the more loathsome aspects of his adopted country, not to mention the inanities of those whom Anthony encounters. Besides the aforementioned Darryl Bob Allen, look out for the pilot who gives Anthony the most graphic description imaginable of the crash that killed Lucy.

At heart, however, Thanksgiving is a novel about displacement. Anthony is removed not only from his country and from the woman he considers the love of his life, but also from any sense of terra firma. I read the book in one late-night sitting and didn't exactly find it restful. On the contrary, it spooked the hell out of me - not because of any grand guignol flourishes, but because Dibdin has brilliantly captured that realm within all of us where it is always three in the morning... and there's no daybreak in sight.

* The writer's new novel, 'The Pursuit of Happiness', will be published by Hutchinson next April

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