I expect a lot from the books I read. I expect the books I read to destroy me in some way. At the same time, I expect the books I read to clear away the clouds in my brain. I expect to find in the books I read not necessarily a better understanding of the world I live in but an emphasis and underscoring of the truths I already know deep down that I have never been able to articulate to myself. I expect this articulation of the truths I already know deep down to enlighten me through its beauty and compassion. I expect the books I read to face the ugly truths I already know deep down for me. I expect the books I read to remind me that I’m not alone.
Michael Kimball’s Us meets and exceeds all my expectations for what I expect from the books I read in its meticulous account of a man caring for his dying wife.
At a glance, Us (which is seeing its first U.S. release, previously appearing overseas as How Much of Us There Was) might seem simple: it’s about an old man whose wife is dying. Intercut with that story are sections narrated from the perspective of a character named Michael Kimball that discuss his perspective on the nature of losing a loved one. But because it is so grounded in the minute-by-minute actions we take to keep our loved ones with us for just a little while longer, and because these actions are so lovingly rendered, Us opens up our own grief and shows us why love makes death so difficult.
The narration in Us is crafted by a repetitive, musical prose-style, in which the old man details exactly how he cares for his dying wife. The repetition seems almost childlike, but this childlikeness comes from the absolute emotional destitution of a man losing the love of his life to some mysterious illness. When the old man spends his first night with his comatose wife in her hospital room, he describes what he thought, though in such a situation, the old man’s thoughts come across as desperate action: “I thought that it might help my wife to stay alive if I stayed awake. I thought that she might open her eyes up if I kept looking at her. I turned the lights on inside her hospital room so that she might think that it was morning and might wake up” (28). Us’s majorly emotional effectis in how these little moments of the old man’s desperate magical thinking and hope and failure at willing his wife back to life accumulate into the devastatingly beautiful portrait of a human being losing the person who matters to him most.
The majority of the narration is from the perspective of the old man whose wife is dying. From the alternating Michael Kimball-narrated sections, we can assume that the old man is a fictionalized version of Kimball’s own Grandfather Oliver. These sections with the Michael Kimball character not only help put the old man’s step-by-step process of losing his wife into context, but they also help connect this dying to the idea of “how love can accumulate between two people over and through two lifetimes” (120). One of the most heartbreaking moments in Us is when Michael Kimball’s wife has to have ear surgery. The surgery itself is not life-threatening, but it reminds Kimball that “she was going to die sometime, some years from then, or that I was going to,” and that both of them would try “to slow that dying down” (80-81) without being able to stop it. Reading Us is like being awake in the middle of the night, lying next to the person you have finally found who you love more than yourself, and realizing that this person sleeping next to you will one day not be sleeping next to you. Us makes you want to pinch that person just to make sure they’re still there.
Michael Goroff is a small press fiction staff reviewer for Barn Owl Review. He lives with his cat in Akron, Ohio, where he is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction through the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program.
Also by Michael Goroff: Review of How They Were Found by Matt Bell