Suki Linnell reviews Almost by Ami Rao from Fairlight Books
A middle-aged poetry teacher in Hampstead, London, is unmoored by the death of his fourteen-year-old daughter, killed in a car accident. Almost is the second novel by Ami Rao, a British-American writer born in Calcutta, India. Her debut novel, David and Ameena, was published by Fairlight Books in February 2021. Almost is a brief successor, a novella told in fragments, strung together in a linear fashion. Lines written by Roland Barthes interpunct the text, presented as coolly illuminating aperçus between the father’s attempt to understand the scale of his loss. His raw quest for understanding and Barthes’ distilled contemplations alternate throughout the narrative.
The father writes lists and draws tables, attempting to structure the pain of his loss into something manageable. He refers to Barthes frequently because Barthes died in a car crash, and, like him, lost his mother at a young age – but really, it feels as though the love for Barthes, and the dependence on his perceptions, comes from Rao. His presence feels jammed-in, somehow. Barthes famously declared the death of the author; here, the author feels very present.
At times, the protagonist’s wife appears in the story, a beautiful chimera with red hair and ‘forest-green’ eyes, embittered by the loss of her child. The father refers to her only through pronouns, all capitalised – HER and SHE – never by name. The effect is grating, the motive unclear.
In literary circles, it is rare to find a novel about grief that isn’t praised for being searing, or unflinching, or some such other compliment. It’s one of those topics that feels sacrosanct: any attempt to describe it is approached in hushed, reverential tones. It’s possible to forget that as a topic, grief can be handled clumsily, like any other. It is interesting to think about how often writers are condemned for approaching the topic of sex, for example, in writing; a phenomenon surely as universal as grief. A transcription of sex on the page is easily laughed at. A transcription of loss, less so.
Yet even with Barthes to hand, Almost doesn’t add much insight to the fundamentals of grief; instead we trudge with the father through its attendant exasperations. There is a zoned-out funeral; too many house callers; plenty of guilt and blame; one spouse smokes to excess, while the other drinks too much wine; and there are not one but two attempts to return to work too early. Instead of solace, the marriage is a site of bickering, and resentment, and neglect. Almost doesn’t capture much that is moving about grief, but it does offer realism in capturing what is wearying about it.
Get the book here.