Narratives of Loss and Mourning

  • Carol Matthews
    Minerva's Owl: The Bereavement Phase of My Marriage. Oolichan Books (purchase at
  • Marianne Apostolides
    Deep Salt Water. BookThug (purchase at
Reviewed by Saghar Najafi

Both of the books under review are intimate memoirs whose narratives focus on loss and the mourning of relationships. In Deep Salt Water, Marianne Apostolides, with a touch of stream of consciousness, writes about her experiences falling in love, having an abortion, drifting apart from her lover, and eventually rejoining him. Carol Matthews shares the story of her husband’s death in Minerva’s Owl, recounting her struggles with grief and, ultimately, acceptance.

Apostolides’ narration focuses on the possible life of a child later named Blythe after her abortion. Among myriad similes, Apostolides compares her female body to an ocean from which the life of the fetus emerges, and the sketches by Catherine Mellinger throughout the book portray an unbreakable connection between the female body and the environment. The narration is further replete with psychedelic imagery that draws a close connection between the writer’s body and mother earth. Apostolides offers certain facts, free of any raw scientific terms, about the formation of earth, oceans, single-celled organisms, and the development of human beings, which accompany an underlying story of the embryo’s formation and its demise at the hand of mother/earth. The embryo and the mother are compared to a pearl and a clam, to an egg and a fish, and to a unicellular organism and the ocean throughout the book.

The memoir is divided into sections patterned on the trimesters of embryonic development during pregnancy, and focuses on the development and death of the fetus as well as Apostolides’ feelings towards it. By posing the ethical question of whether abortion was the right decision for her, Apostolides takes the reader through a journey of self-affliction, pondering, and absolution; she writes, “What is the language to talk of abortion? The language of ‘rights’ is too limited.” Although in the first pages of the book she writes, “I’ve never come to terms for this [abortion]. Not yet,” she will be able to forgive herself at its conclusion. While abortion is a literal subject for Apostolides, its interrelated figurative resonances extend as well to the premature ending of her relationship with her boyfriend.

From another perspective, the book can be read as an elegy in memoriam of a lost child. Fragmented sentences are copious throughout the book’s first pages, suggesting the incapacity of language to express grief. At one point, Apostolides brings up the “elusiveness” of death—the difficulty of grasping it, of getting over the death of her child—and writes, “gone-ness is hard for the mind to conceive.” Close to the end of the book, she exclaims “I murdered a fetus” for the first time. But moving beyond forgiveness and confession, Apostolides reminds readers and herself that she is aware of her actions and trying to “bear them.”

Matthews, in her thanatography, draws a comparison between Hegel’s description of the owl of Minerva, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and her own final acceptance of her husband’s demise. Hegel famously observed that Minerva’s owl opens its wings only at dusk, asserting that reality can only be understood in hindsight. Matthews struggles to understand her husband’s death throughout her narrative until its end, where she, as the owl, accepts the reality and moves forward. The first half of the memoir is mostly narrated in the simple past tense, through which Matthews draws attention to the memories of her acquaintance with her husband, their distant relationship, their life together, and, finally, their marriage. This part of the book is mostly Matthews’ recollection of her life and its historicity, in Paul Ricoeur’s sense. In the second half Matthews situates herself in what Ricoeur calls the “within-timeness” of the present, and it is only at the end of the book that she mostly adopts the simple present tense to displace herself to the bitter reality of what has happened to her and to gather her strength. The process of being authentic towards death could not be narrated better. From recollection and actuality, she faces a potential future where her (Minerva’s) owl could once more open its wings and continue living, yet with a deeper understanding of life and accepting oneself as a mortal being.

The memoir is heartbreaking. Matthews takes readers through different stages of grief, from denial to guilt, anger, acceptance, and mourning, to a final phase she adds called surviving. Death is a challenging subject to portray, but Matthews succeeds at dedicating the whole space of the memoir to her husband, where the presence of his absence is felt; from the epistolary appearance of his words in the poems and letters Matthews reads, to her own subjective descriptions of her husband, Mike is an omnipresent protagonist. Matthews comes to terms with C. S. Lewis’ claim that bereavement is a normal phase of marriage. In bereavement she learns how to be herself after being one with her husband, how to be a single noun after being a part of a “compound noun of Carol and Mike” for so many years. And she considers the excruciatingly painful process as a gift to her late husband, who will not experience the bereavement of losing his wife. For Matthews, writing the elegy is a therapeutic way of reckoning with grief and death, whose presence lurks throughout the text until she “finds her life by the losing of it.”

This review “Narratives of Loss and Mourning” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 109-110.

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