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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : The Anatomy of Mourning--and of Rebuilding a Life : OBLIVION by Josephine Hart ; Viking/Penguin $19.95, 202 pages

October 24, 1995|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Andrew Bolton is a television interviewer, a Londoner, an attractive, successful man in his mid-40s, though those adjectives no longer define him in his own mind.

Widower has replaced them all. His adored wife, Laura, died less than a year ago, and his grief overtakes, possesses and consumes him. Laura, Laura, he murmurs, explaining and apologizing for his actions, overwhelmed with guilt for being alive, for taking an interest in his work, enjoying a meal, and feeling sexual desire. He has, as the coolly euphemistic phrase goes, met someone, and when the novel opens, he is awaiting Sarah in a hotel room, apparently his first attempt at physical intimacy since Laura's death.

"What am I doing here? Oh, God, why did I think I could do this? I must do this. Others have done this. It is a rite of passage." Sarah Bonnington is a delight; young, charming, wise beyond her years, patient, understanding and in love with him. His desire is genuine, but not yet for the warm, responsive woman in his arms.

There in the elegant hotel room, he longs for Laura, whom he is now about to betray, to consign to the oblivion that is the core of this profound exploration of the anatomy of mourning. Eventually we will understand the slow process by which the bereaved reassemble their shattered lives, but just now Andrew feels as if he were a pane of glass to which someone had taken a hammer.

Andrew is not alone in his sorrow. Jane Rowden, his late wife's mother, has kept her daughter's room as a sort of shrine; not precisely as it was but meticulously rearranged in monastic austerity. After a ritual of fasting, she goes there frequently to commune with Laura, feeling her presence and recording their conversations in a diary.

Of the survivors, Jack Rowden, Laura's father, is the only one who seems to have regained his balance. He's an economist and a philanderer, a combination of interests that apparently helped to speed his recovery. Andrew and Jack have never been close, and Andrew is astonished when his father-in-law presents him with Jane Rowden's diary--a record of those secret, imaginary conversations with Laura's spirit.

Reluctant at first, Andrew reads the diary and learns that Jane has been observing his meetings with Sarah. More than embarrassed by his wife's behavior, Jack is worried about Andrew and the young woman he cautiously refers to as "your friend." After reading the entries, Andrew returns the purloined journal, more disturbed and uncertain than ever, but sure that Jane would never do anything to harm anyone, no matter how distraught she might be.

Trying valiantly to put the diary out of his mind, Andrew concentrates his attention on his forthcoming assignment, an interview with the controversial playwright Catherine Samuelson. She's known to be a difficult, prickly subject; sardonic and cynical. Her reputation rests largely upon a trilogy in which she demolishes the myths by which people live; the myths of personality, of grief and of the afterlife. Her new work, about to open, will deal with the oblivion that follows death. "I believe," she tells Andrew, "that death is a double dealer: First he deals us our mortal death, then our real death--oblivion--when we are forgotten."

Andrew attends a rehearsal of this work, a fully realized play within the novel. There, listening to the playwright's words, Andrew's healing process truly begins. The literary device is extraordinarily effective, providing the novel with a necessary change of tone and pace while demonstrating the actual author's versatility.

When we encounter Andrew and Sarah a week later, in another hotel room, his recovery is well under way. Laura's ghost leaves him in peace for an entire crucial hour. The next stage of his life will not be the same as the last, but the reader is left with the knowledge that there will be a next stage, not just for this finely drawn fictional character, but for everyone who faces such anguish.

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