I wouldn’t want to work in the promotions department for this week’s book. Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother isn’t a book title designed to excite the passing shopper.
In fact, even though Helen Humphreys is a respected writer, it wasn’t until I heard her speak intimately about the motivation for writing this book that I felt intrigued enough to give it a try. Humphrey’s brother, a concert pianist, died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 45, just four months after getting his initial diagnosis. When he died suddenly much was left undone,
Thankfully, Nocturne is more than an accounting of personal grief. I’ve read my share of books which are written as an author’s personal therapy. I applaud these writers, but sometimes question if their books are more journals than something suited for a general audience.
Ironically, because Nocturne is directly addressed to just one person — her brother — Humphreys appeals to more of us. She writes to explain to her brother what happened after he died. She tells him about an alternate course of events — during the lost months when he planned to still be alive and crossing items from his Things to Do Before I Die List. The book reads the way a musical nocturne sounds: evocative of late evening, of melancholy, and of a misleading simplicity. Nocturnes are often associated with solo piano. Humphreys believes that her brother missed out on a full life because while practicing for hours every day, his back was literally turned on the world. Thinking back to times when they were children, Humphreys shows how their close relationship develops out of the emerging fact that they are both artists.
It’s heart-breaking, because Humphreys doesn’t romanticize their life together. She wonders why he never read any of her books, while she owns and listens to all of his CDs. She invites us in to the intimate details, flaws and all, of their relationship, and wonderfully holds us back as well — referring to a secret of his that she will keep.
It was hard for me to begin this book but I’m glad to have done so. It doesn’t offer many ideas on how to deal with loss, but reminds readers of the sense of belonging which comes from partaking in another person’s story. Because suffering is universal, you might think carefully about choosing the right time to read Nocturne.
Depending on your own experiences, it will gently offer different rewards
Heather Allen is a writer and reader living in Penticton.