We lose a lot. A helluva lot. We all have…or will, at some point in our lives. Once you get to be a certain age, people start to die. The generations above us slowly make way for us. Sometimes they prepare us for the transition, and sometimes we are caught off-guard. The fact of death remains.
This is what Zinzi Clemmons grapples with in her novel What We Lose. She follows the protagonist, Thandie, through her coming-of-age and adulthood, with the loss of her mother being the definitive event in her life. Or at least, that’s what the book’s sleeve tells us. The death is certainly a big thing that happens in the novel, but the somewhat disjointed timeline of the narration makes it unclear that the mother’s death is, or is meant to be, the focal point of this story. Then again, that could very well be purposeful.
I struggle constantly when reading new novels with what I feel as I read and what I think the author is trying to convey. It’s a multiple-step process for me, where I first react to a particular event, character, point of view, writing style, or observation in a novel. Then, I try to gauge if the author made a conscious choice to write in this way in order to encourage the very reaction I’ve had. Finally, I try to gauge whether or not I think that decision and my reaction added positive value to my reading experience—because all reactions are not created equal, and just because a writer can attempt to manipulate a reader in a certain way doesn’t mean that they should.
I found myself cycling through this process over and over as I read this book and tried to understand why the author made certain decisions with the characters or the observations made. As I pointed out in my June Bookend, I ultimately did not love this book very much. I got through the first and second step of my process okay, as I think my reaction and Zinzi Clemmon’s decisions to write in a particular way were both purposeful. But when I got to my last step of why, I came up short. What did I take from the perfunctory knowledge, for example, that the protagonist was too Black for the whites but too white for the Blacks? Not much, outside of an eye-roll at this oft-repeated trope. Not to say that it is invalid for a person to feel this way, but if you are going to make it enough of an issue to write into your story, do something different with it that I couldn’t have read on a Twitter thread or Facebook post.
I will say that I recognized some of the grieving process and reactions that the protagonist experienced after her mother died, and that felt very real. Still, when I got to the end of the novel, I almost wondered why Zinzi Clemmons had even bothered to write this book, except for cathartic purposes. Thankfully, it is a short and fast read.