Book review: In Every Moment We Are Alive by Tom Malmquist

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

When someone very close to you dies, it’s entirely natural for people to extend their condolences, to offer their love and support in any way they can and to be present with you in your emotionally-enervating moment of grief and loss.

It’s a brief bubble when loving arms envelop you and you are carried along, in ways big and small, through one of the very worst periods of your life.

But life moves on, as it must, and you are left to your own devices, grief seems to fall even harder upon you, reminding you over and over again of how much you have lost and how much lesser life will be without that person in it.

I found that last year when my beautiful father died, and Tom Malmquist, who tells the harrowing story of unexpectedly losing his partner of 10 years Karin to leukemia just as she gives birth prematurely to their daughter, and first child, Livia, recounts a similar emotionally-exhausting life lesson.

Reading at first like a novel, it becomes quickly apparent that Malmquist is relating events he lived through – there is an aching authenticity to the way he relates the maelstrom of fast-moving events that transformed a largely, though not unflawed, relationship, bright with happy future moments into one defined by loss, death, grief, and thankfully, the joy of holding your daughter in your arms.

“The electrical activity in Karin’s heart has stopped. Lillemor presses her hands over her ears and closes her eyes. Sven shakes his head a little and asks” What are you saying? Dad, Karin’s pulse is zero, says Måns. If Karin’s pulse is zero that would mean she’s dead, he says. It takes a few seconds before a groan is heard rising from his throat, and his head drops. Lillemor is trembling, saying something I can’t quite catch. Måns sinks onto the floor in front of them.” (P. 76)

Malmquist beautifully and touchingly, with a veracity borne of someone who has stood at the coalface of grief trying to work out how on earth he can ever climb up and over it, conveys what it is like to lose Karin, gain Livia, be caught in the immediate aftermath of losing his beloved partner and struggle to reemerge into what remains of your life.

One thing that immediately strikes you, quite apart from Malmquist’s admirably brutal honesty – at no point does he portray anything in his and Karin’s life as idyllic; they’re happy yes, but this is life in the relational trenches and the author never once gilds the lily with Disney-eque perfection or allusions to it – is the toll grief takes on your capacity to handle life, even weeks or months after the defining event.

This is no place for logic or rationale – yes you have to get on with things; there is no choice especially with a newborn but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or even remotely palatable.

Indeed, were it not for Malmquist’s mother and mother-in-law who spend nights at his home looking after Livia while he tries to sleep in haze of sleeping tablets and unbidden memories, it becomes apparent that the author wonders if he could have coped at all.

At one point he even talks to his father about getting committed but that recedes as he begins slowly but not without a thousand backward steps, common to anyone navigating a path through grief – it never really leaves you; you just find ways to deal with it better – reacquaint himself with the messily ordinary business of living.

 

Tom Malmquist (image courtesy Last Word Book Review)

 

That’s the key thing I think that you take away from In Every Moment We Are Still Alive.

Being enveloped by grief feels like someone stopping the hands of time; the world moves on around you, but you stay anchored in that one terrible moment, unable to move, think, feel beyond that bubble of time.

It’s horrible, terrible and a thousand other things beside, and while Malmquist doesn’t belabour the point – the book is refreshingly down to earth and real, with conversations, past and present events presented in an authentically-jumbled stream of consciousness that feels deeply real – you understand in so many ways what it is like to stay rooted to that one existential spot.

And how memories resurface at the oddest times, with grief percolating up all over again.

Take as an example the time that Malmquist is cleaning up around Karin’s writing desk – the two are both writers, a source of support and occasional friction, having met at university – and discovers two coffee stains on the woodwork.

“In what way are you feeling bad? I miss Karin. Of course you miss Karin, dear Tom … death is abstract, it can’t be rationally understood.” (P. 207)

At first he think he should clean them off, tidy everything off, an understandable instinct but he finds himself photographing them, wondering how she came to spill the coffee, what she was thinking and doing at the time.

He also brilliantly and movingly explores the no-man’s land that exists in the immediate afterwash of great loss, everything from the bureaucratic tangles that ensnare you – Karin dies so suddenly that there’s no time to officially nominate Malmquist as the father – to learning to looking after a newborn alone (or almost alone) to the simple act of getting up, dressed and facing the minutiae of day-to-day life.

Malmquist discusses with exquisite truthfulness and raw, unfiltered emotion – the punctuation of the chapters, such as they are, does not follow traditional norms with observations and dialogue tumbling, sometimes confusingly, into each other, mirroring how everything feels in grief’s disordered undertow – what it feels to have someone desperately important taken from you at the time someone infinitely new and precious is handed to you.

More than that, he helps anyone who has been fortunate not to experience grief’s raw, rough hand, what it means when someone they are comforting don’t react logically or “normally” to their ministrations; you can’t someone in Malmquist’s position, or mine last year, to handle life as they normally would because grief, in so many achingly awful ways, is as far from normal as you can possibly get.

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive burrows deep down into your soul, real, true, dark and hopeful but above all, honest about how it feels to fall into the abyss-like rabbit hole of grief, and wonder if you’ll ever emerge again.

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