True Story: The Life and Death of My Brother
224 pages • Serpent’s Tail • 11 April, 2013 [PB]
Sub-titled ‘The Life and Death of My Brother’, Canadian author and poet, Helen Humphreys, offers in True Story (originally published under the title ‘Nocturne’) a poignant memoir of her attempts to come to terms with her grief at the sudden and unexpected loss of her younger brother, Martin.
Addressing him directly, she writes of her intention in recording her feelings in this way: “… my grief is not that orderly, or that disciplined. It lopes ahead, stops short. I am not really able to contain it, merely follow where it leads. My only structural constraint is that I have decided on forty-five segments for this piece, one for every year you were alive.”
Martin Humphreys was a precociously talented and celebrated pianist who made his debut at London’s Royal Festival Hall at the age of twenty but who died tragically young after losing his battle against pancreatic cancer. In the forty-five short sections marking out Martin’s short life, his sister charts her journey through grief. ‘True Story’ is a meditation on life, death and the human condition, and one handled with the utmost delicacy and dignity – as possibly only a poet could.
There is anger too, naturally enough, but an elegiac tone pervades this beautiful short book, the writing of which must have acted as a form of catharsis or closure for Helen Humphreys. But it also anatomises loss by focusing on the small, prosaic, trivial, even banal moments of a life, and by examining sibling and family relationships and shared memories – and the accuracy of those memories when tested objectively against information that so often only turns up after a person’s death, necessitating an unexpected, and not always welcome, reappraisal.
Anyone who has suffered such a loss will recognise the accuracy of Humphreys’ observations on the trajectory of mourning – the numbness and pain, the confusion and denial, the eventual acceptance and even reconcilement – and this gives her work not only a particularity but a universality which, whilst at times quite shockingly clear-eyed and unsentimental, is at the same time strangely comforting. In her unflinching honesty she achieves minutely-observed, almost forensic precision yet does so without being brutal.
Martin Humphreys was straight but his sister is gay and she writes movingly of the way in which her grief, by forcing her to slow down, also opened up the possibility of falling in love again: “It saddens me you’ll never meet Nancy, and that my new life is so far removed from my old one. And it feels strange to me that your death is the hinge between those two worlds, the point at which everything changed.”
Helen Humphreys, like fellow Canadian poets, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, also writes beautiful prose but ‘True Story’ is, in truth, an elegy; a poetic lament for the dead and especially for a loved-one lost far too early.