There are different kinds of loss – of self, of someone else, of a dream. Sometimes a book can speak across these boundaries, reaching out from the particularities of a singular experience to address broader themes. A few years ago I lost my father, someone towards whom my emotions were complex, and it was Elena Ferrante’s TheDays of Abandonment that worked as a kindness and offered an understanding of what exactly was, or could be, happening within – though she was writing not about death, but about a woman being deserted by her husband. Death does feel like desertion, and the way to address it is to find where one’s feet are placed on the ground, to walk newly alone, temporarily clipped, which this protagonist eventually does, with her anger and pride and dismay. We are taken along the entire journey, and we see that it is in facing her loss, observing and absorbing what is left, and waiting for herself on the other side of the chasm, that she reaches a place of redemption – a return to a truer, strengthened self.
There is no such redemption for April Wheeler, the entrapped wife and mother who wants more out of life in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road: her attempt to reach for it fails miserably. This is a dark and bleak novel, but darkness is sometimes just the thing – an equalness of tone, a comparing of shades. And here April’s tragic fate also acts as a warning of what happens when a dream for a life gets waylaid or upstaged by easy convention. And when is a better time to break from convention than in grief and loss, a place where such things fade into mist?
Two beautiful memoirs that face bereavement head on and offer ways out of the darkness are Isabel Allende’s Paula, about the loss of her daughter, and Mark Doty’s shimmering Heaven’s Coast, about the loss of his partner Wally to Aids. Both books have that important blend in the best heartbreak memoirs of measured gush and frank tenderness. The slow vigil at the bedside of the dying beloved is an invitation to share in this mourning, to search beyond it for more life, a possible future that will contain the spirit of the departed. “I used to imagine, when I’d walk the dogs before Wally died, that the shining path the sun makes across the sea was the way the dead went, the way home,” Doty writes.
Doty and Allende were friends and saviours, as books can often be, at a time when words sang more clearly than in everyday life. And at such times, of course, poetry sings loudest of all. I love so many poets – Rita Dove, Pablo Neruda, Derek Walcott, Alice Walker, Mary Oliver – and it is Jackie Kay I often turn to for her soothing meld of luminosity, compassion and humour. Her voice is so familiar to me, and so trusted, that I visit the pages of her compilation, Darling: New and Selected Poems, whenever I am trying to connect again with the ground, to remember where the good places are, without forsaking a sense of wonder. When you are lost in the wilderness of loss you need a poet to take you home.
• Diana Evans is the author of Ordinary People, The Wonder and 26a.Ordinary People is longlisted for the Women’s prize.