Grief does strange things to people.
And try as we might to predict how we will react in circumstances of great loss, you don’t really know how you will cope, or not cope as the case maybe, until the time comes.
In the case of Arthur Pepper, the protagonist of Phaedra Black’s delightfully quirky book, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, he finds himself mourning the loss of his wife of 40 plus years Miriam by retreating to the safety of his home and the ceaseless, beige march of stultifying routine.
He gets up at a precise time every morning, wears the same tired old man clothes, water his fern Frederica, who has bloomed as his life has withered, and heads out to spend his day in the garden.
“Each day Arthur got out of bed at precisely 7.30 a.m. just as he did when his wife, Miriam, was alive. He showered and got dressed in the gray slacks, pale blue shirt and mustard sweater-vest that he had laid out the night before. He had a shave, then went downstairs … At eight o’clock he made his breakfast, usually a slice of toast and margarine, and he sat at the pine farmhouse table that could seat six, but which now just seated one. At eight-thirty, he would rinse his pots and wipe down the kitchen worktop using the flat of his hand and then two lemon-scented wipes, Then his day could begin.” (P. 7)
Though he lives in a fairly closely-knit neighbourhood – he is on speaking terms with his lawn proud neighbour across the road, Terry, and tolerates visits by the patron of “lost causes” Bernadette who comes over from next door two to three times a day sometimes with baked savoury goods and always with ample words of concern – he is a man apart, withdrawing from a world which no longer holds any pleasure for him.
Family-wise there is little incentive to break the walls of his redoubt with his quiet introspective daughter Lucy, a school teacher, nearby physically but not emotionally, and his son Dan all the way over in Australia, a mother’s boy who never forgave Arthur for his long absences from home as a travelling locksmith and who couldn’t even be bothered to come to his mother’s funeral.
This is Arthur’s new lonely world of a year standing and it looks, for all intents and purposes, as if this is the way it will stay until he dies, however far away that might be for a man of sixty-nine.
But then Arthur discovers a beautiful ornament gold charm bracelet hidden in a pair of his wife’s shoes, adorned with a range of beautiful charms, all of which are in a style that the typically pragmatic Miriam usually eschewed.
This chance discovery sets in a train a wide-ranging chain of events that takes Arthur across England to Bath, London and Scarborough, and then far abroad to France and India.
Not bad for a man who had consigned his life’s furthest expanses to a small house in a small town with little to surprise him.
While the writing is a little pedestrian at times with a tad too much inner monologue and a tendency to underplayed melodrama, it’s hard not to like Arthur Pepper and his everyday experience of life and grief.
Like many of us he is leading an unremarkable life with which he is perfectly happy – he and Miriam were perfectly suited and remained blissfully in love their whole marriage, something that everyone from their kids and acquaintances remark upon – and if time would have been so kind he would have been content to keep living it in perpetuity.
And his experience of grief rings painfully true, with the absence of Miriam and all it represents painfully, accurately and poignantly expressed.
Even though Arthur does reawaken to life’s myriad possibilities as he discovers what each charm represents about periods in Miriam’s life of which he knew nothing, causing him at numerous points to question whether the life and love he is mourning was even real, the story resists becoming, at least until it’s end, a fairytale of unrealistic proportions since the ever-present dead hand of grief never quite leaves him alone.
“When those words were gone he felt empty as if they were the only things holding him together. The sea rolled over his feet and filled his shoes. He stumbled backward over a rock and he hit he wet sand with a thud. His knees crunched and his hands and backside slapped against the sand. A wave crashed over his legs, soaking him again and surrounding him with a halo of white foam. “Miriam,” he said again weakly, digging his fingers into the sand. He felt it suck and slide away from him. He wished he had left her alone, perfect in his memory, instead of prying and pursuing her.” (P. 231)
This is no mindless tale of grief being expelled after a series of quirky incidents, and when your adventures involve tigers, wedding dress designers in Paris and bright blue MC Hammer pants quirky is the only word for it; rather one that, for all its lightness and mirth at times, remains firmly rooted in a very real sense of loss.
That is I think what makes The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper so refreshingly different; it’s light and frothy, quirky and fun on one level with a cast of delightfully-wrought characters but it is also real and true, embedded at every turn with an understanding of grief as tormentor and prisoner, destroyer and thief.
But, and this is where the book also makes perfect sense, only if we let it.
It may sound like a flippant message since emerging from grief never marches to a set rhythm, is different for everyone and lingers on much longer than anyone ever expects, but it is conveyed with the understanding and wry observance, written by someone who seems to appreciate how hard it is to leave grief behind and start living again.
For most of us this kind of journey is metaphorical and emotional only but through Arthur, it takes on physical form, allowing us to see that it is possible to lose what we most value and discover things about our past life that shake us to the core and yet still emerge back into the sunshine of life again, bruised and battered yes, but not down and out.
And if anything makes this charming book worth reading, quite apart from the delights of Arthur, his friends and family and his lovely charm-led odyssey, it’s that salient and necessary message.