(nb: I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley)
Picture Perfect: Loss, Love, and The Art of Healing
“What I Came to Tell You” shows a family imploding in grief, and how they find redemption in learning they are not alone.
When Caroline Johnston was hit and killed by a car, she left behind a husband and two children whose lives were crushed. The story follows twelve-year-old Grover. Grover was never an especially social boy, preferring to spend time playing in the bamboo forest next to the family’s home. He had friends, and he would visit them and play video games, or go sledding when Asheville was covered in snow.
After his mother died, he retreated into his own head, spending all his time in the woods, making his “weavings,” tapestries woven from bamboo, different tree branches, colorful leaves, and whatever other natural materials he could find. He made a few small ones that he left on his mothers grave. As the grief inside him festers, his weavings grow larger and larger, till he has to use a step-ladder to finish the last one.
Grover’s assistant and biggest fan is Sudie, his ten-year-old sister. Sudie is the one member of the Johnston family who’s dealing with Caroline’s loss at all healthily. She’s not afraid to cry, and she speaks to her school’s counselor frequently. One day at their mother’s grave site, she screams to Grover that God is stupid. Her faith isn’t shaken; she just can’t understand why God would let something so stupid happen.
(Grover says he doesn’t believe in God, but he really needs Sudie to have faith, as if she can anchor them both.)
Grover and Sudie’s father, Walt, deals with his pain by throwing himself into his job as executive director of the Thomas Wolfe House. He’s grown dark circles under his eyes, and doesn’t laugh as much.
Helping hold this family together is Jessie, an older man who knew Walt and Caroline before the kids came along. He’s a wizened friend to Walt, and a surrogate grandfather for the children. He has the Johnstons over for dinner once a week, and cooks up a storm for Thanksgiving dinner.
Jessie also owns the house across the street from the Johnstons. One day, a family moves into the house. It is this family who will help the Johnstons heal. They can commiserate in their mutual losses. Walt can learn to feel again. Grover finds that he has somebody who understands him, somebody who breaks a tiny hole in the wall around his heart, somebody worth risking his life for one tragic night.
You almost have to count Thomas Wolfe as a character in “What I Came to Tell You,” as his spirit hangs over the novel like a shimmering mist. Walt Johnston works at the Thomas Wolfe House, “The Old Kentucky Home,” as described in Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Caroline is buried in Riverside Cemetery near Thomas Wolfe’s grave. Grover and Sudie were named after characters in “Look Homeward, Angel.”
The choices for their names are perfect, too. Grover was a tragic figure, Eugene Gant’s quiet brother who got sick and died too young. Sudie was a neighbor, who protected the Gant children when their father went into a drunken rage.
While Grover Johnston doesn’t physically die in “What I Came to Tell You,” for awhile he’s dying on the inside. His little sister, Sudie, is in many ways as much the protector as her namesake. Since their mother’s death, Sudie is the one who makes sure they eat their vegetables. She urges her big brother to seek help from the school counselor. She’s also Grover’s confidante and partner: no matter what happens, Sudie is there by his side.
“What I Came to Tell You” is one of the richest, most beautifully paced novels of the year. It never feels rushed, or telegraphs “THIS IS AN IMPORTANT MOMENT!” It takes its time, showing the simple cadences and everyday lives of a family largely benumbed by tragedy, and their slow but steady path toward healing.
Author Tommy Hays’s imagery is lovely. Without being excessive, his descriptions of the old school, various homes, the bamboo forest–even frying chicken–etch themselves in the reader’s mind.
Hays has taken a theme often found in literature–a family recovering after a death–and couched it in such an unusual, sensual way that it echoes Thomas Wolfe’s richly descriptive twist on the coming-of-age novel in “Look Homeward, Angel.”
Each event in Grover’s life–no matter how big or small–is like a small knot on a tapestry, or a twig in one of his weavings. Up close, it may not seem like much. But when you step back and see the whole picture, its beauty will stun you.
And Thomas Wolfe would have loved this book.
Most Highly Recommended
5 stars out of 5