One of the enduring myths of grief is that at some unspecified point, the person caught in its enervating and seemingly endless grasp will simply get up, reassess the sorry state of their life and walk happy into a bright and shiny new life garlanded with alluring possibility, renewed hope and a sense of renewed life and purpose.
Were that it was that easy or straightforward.
In Jane Riley’s (The Likely Resolutions of Oliver Clock) beautiful new novel Geraldine Verne’s Red Suitcase, we are led, in the person of the titular character, through a wholly moving and at times, sweetly funny, journey into the madness and uncertainty of grief and the way in which it defies expectation at just about every turn.
In the case of Geraldine, a seventy-something woman who has lost her beloved Jack just months before to cancer, those expectations, articulated with the most heartfelt and well-intentioned of motivation, include that Geri as she is known to her friends, will not give up on life.
Jack, who saw adventure and exploration as integral to a well-lived life and who went with Geri to exotic places around Australia and the world, often in search of their shared love of butterflies – their home contains a ButterFly Room, evidence of their mutual interest given solid form – implored his beautiful ex-librarian wife to carpe diem everything she possibly could in her life.
But Geri, moribund in grief and unable to picture a world where Jack isn’t front and centre, is manifestly incapable of following through when we meet her, locked away in her home and unwilling to see any of her old friends, including Len and his new girlfriend Crystal or her old work pal Maggie.
“You see, I know it looks like as if I’m spinning an old and scuffed bright-red, four-wheel, cabin-sized case as if I’ve got an undiagnosed obsessive suitcase-spinning disorder; or that I am wheeling it around because I need a walking frame and am too thrifty to spend money on one. But it’s neither of those.
What I’m really doing is dancing with my husband and it’s the most joyous thing in the world. It was when he was alive, and it still is, even though he’s passed.” (P. 7)
It’s hardly what a dying Jack had in mind; nor is the fact that instead of scattering his ashes somewhere exotic, Geri is hauling his urn from room to room in one of the red suitcases that used to accompany them on their trips overseas.
The irony isn’t lost on Geri who knows that she is letting Jack down on two incredibly important counts but she cannot let him go nor even leave the home to fetch the newspapers which land nine metres from her front door, and she certainly can’t go to Mexico or somewhere equally matching the intent of her husband’s dying wishes.
At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking that here is yet another entry in the long and growing list of novels which feature a lost and lonely person, adrift in the endless possibilities of life, who somehow finds their way back to the land of the living through the love and understanding of old and new friends alike.
As far as broad brushstrokes go, you would be right but what sets Geraldine Verne’s Red Suitcase apart as one of the special additions to a fervently well-meant and crowded genre, is that Riley invests a tremendous amount of meaningful humanity into Geri, who doesn’t simply bounce back the moment someone encourages her to go to the park and head out to a museum for the day.
As a result, at all times, Geri’s grief feels palpably real.
You can feel every last gram of her grief, including how she finds herself unable to get dressed or stop drinking Baileys to make things “better” or let go of Jack’s possessions or even his ersatz presence in the form of the urn which accompanies her everywhere.
Riley paints a picture of someone lost entirely to their grief, who remembers how her grand love affair began, how it sustained itself with vitality and passion for over fifty years and how sadly and horribly it ended, unleashing grief from which she can’t seem to escape.
What makes Geri so compelling is that she is all too aware that this is happening to her, that she has lost herself in the miasma of grief and that she should be accepting Len’s offers of help and letting the new Meals of Wheels volunteer, with whom she has unexpectedly formed a bond and a growing friendship, in.
But she can’t, she simply can’t, and it’s the authenticity of her loss and pain that gives Geraldine Verne’s Red Suitcase such a rich, affecting emotional resonance.
This is real grief, not the narratively convenient kind that vanishes the moment something nice happens to her, and plenty of nice things do happen including getting to know the neighbourhood children across the road, and Riley allows Geri time to work her way through it, giving veracity and strength to the overall story.
“I watched them scamper away, their backpacks bouncing and Benny whopping at the thought of being let loose with rainbow sprinkles. I jiggled the steering wheel, pressed the foot pedals and whacked the heel of my hand on the horn. It gave a single shriek, which stupidly made me jump and alerted the neighbourhood that Geraldine Verne was once again gearing up to step foot in the outside world.” (P. 148)
When Geri does start to emerge from her home and her cocoon-like existence, it thus feels honest and true and all the more rewarding.
You want Geri to find her way again, so beautifully written and brought to life is she – we are party to all her many thoughts and feelings, an intimate view that makes her easily to love and identify with – but you understand why it is, for much of the book, that she can’t.
Riley has given us a very real and affecting and often sweetly funny protagonist in Geraldine Verne who finds in Lottie, someone who also nurses a considerable loss, a kindred spirit who may just be the answer to her re-embracing life in all its possibility and cake-baking wonder.
But theirs is a story of ups and downs, back and forths, closeness and estrangement, a relationship that feels very much like it would if both parties, one in particular, was struggling to move on in life when there was so much left in the past to cling tightly to.
What Riley gives us in Geraldine Verne’s Red Suitcase is a moving gem of a novel, one that makes no bones about how grief can imprison and hold us – though it also welcomingly observes that grief is also a sign of great enduring love which is, in and of itself, a beautiful thing – but which also offers hope, the budding possibility of life rebuilt and renewed thanks to the wondrously joyous intensity of human connections old and new, a glorious reminder that while the past might have a great deal to recommend it, especially when your husband was as wonderful as Jack, the future is worth moving onto when you’re ready and might just surprise you with what it can offer.