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“My whole family made a circumference of ghosts, with me the sole living member in the middle,” reflects Charlie Crosby, the protagonist of Paul Harding’s “Enon.” In this follow-up to his 2009 novel “Tinkers,” Harding returns to the same location, the Massachusetts town of Enon; the same family, two generations later; and the same theme, death and the relationships that can transcend it. For “Enon” opens with nothing less than the loss of a child: an only child, a 13-year-old child, a child crushed under a car in the waning days of summer. She is Charlie’s daughter, and, as Harding imagines in language both hauntingly vivid and intriguingly original, she is Charlie’s life. Perhaps none can understand the loss of a child except those who have suffered through it, but through a subtle interweaving of bittersweet memories and hallucinated realities, Harding gets as close as many readers will hopefully ever experience to it.
From the novel’s outset, Harding sets up a fully realized world for Charlie, his wife, and his newly deceased daughter Kate. “I looked at her small, colorful, neatly folded T-shirts and my knees gave out,” Harding writes as Charlie, hours after Kate’s death, tries to find cremation clothes. From ramshackle old houses to sunrise birdcalls to the pattern of shifting leaves on a sunny day, Harding perfectly portrays the brief moments in time that make a story’s background more than it appears. This is the street Charlie taught Kate to bike on, and that is the woodland path they traipsed along for hours at a time. Through frequent flashbacks sparked by present observations, Harding masterfully explores the connections Charlie makes between the present and the past as he descends into a madness of grief.
This madness is where Harding’s deceivingly ordinary tale takes a turn for the spectacular—and it is this risk-taking that makes the novel shine far above more commonplace portrayals of grief. Charlie, a man who already lives in his head, turns to a potent cocktail of painkillers and alcohol to get by. “The empty house held its silence like a solid volume,” Charlie muses darkly, desperate to find an escape. “There was weight to it.” The mind of a drug addict proves surprisingly fertile ground, and Harding navigates this new landscape through sharp tonal shifts. To the world, Charlie is a wraith, a strung-out and unkempt man worthy of equal parts pity and revulsion; yet in his overactive and disturbed mind, he communes with the dead and sees his daughter die over and over in increasingly haunting scenarios. Harding’s deft juxtaposition of these two worlds—one real, one imagined, and both frightening—creates an incredibly potent portrayal of a mind unraveled by grief. “What if there were to be a phone somewhere in the woods,” Charlie wonders wildly in an early moment of incredulity, “a chthonic hotline made of dark horn, resting on a bone cradle, that patched me through to Kate in her urn?”
It is this preoccupation with death, seen from the perspective of one still alive, that provides the book’s most potent scenes. Unsurprisingly, the town graveyard features prominently across Charlie’s range of lucidity. Even as a boy, the cemetery’s caretaker, a one-legged, colorblind veteran who, as Charlie memorably puts it, “saw the lush green lawns of the cemetery as blood-red,” fascinated him. As an adult encumbered by both grief and a mind-altering drug habit, he imagines thousands of long-dead citizens of Enon “migrating beneath the foundations of our houses and the fairways of the golf courses, trading ribs and teeth and shins and knuckles, commuting under baseball diamonds and the beds of streams, snagging up on roots and rocks, shelves of granite and seams of clay.” Refreshing, haunting, and original descriptions like these prove that Harding is not a man to take words, or the world, at face value. Halfway between drugged morbid hallucinations and his normal mind, Charlie knows “there are certainly more citizens of Enon beneath its fifty-four hundred acres than there are above it.”
It is this combination of and friction between two minds that makes “Enon” such a successfully original portrayal of grief. Charlie doesn’t just mourn the loss of his daughter. He sees her in the afterlife befriending a centuries-dead Enon teenager who was accused of witchcraft and executed in Salem. He sees her face in pictures of the town from the 19th century, sees her berating his present behavior, and more than anything else, sees her in his slipping memories.
Though Charlie’s struggle to achieve sobriety and come to terms with his daughter’s death forms one backbone of the novel, another is this continuity between past and present. In “Enon,” Harding revisits much of the same territory as he did in “Tinkers.” Yet far from being overkill, his insightful exploration of the connection between family, place, love, and time rings all the truer. “Enon” inspires grief as much as celebrates it.
—Staff writer Leanna B. Ehrlich can be reached at email@example.com.
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