I was reading a great book last week, The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney, when my father-in-law unexpectedly died.
It was a good book to be in the middle of, when hit with grief, as that is its subtext. The story flips between two characters consumed by loss and survivor's guilt. One is Wyatt, now a PI, who survived a bloody robbery that while avenged, was never fully solved. Why was he left alive?
And Julianne, whose older teenage sister disappeared at the county fair twenty six years ago, never to be seen again. Julianne was left eating cotton candy, a few years her junior, and the loss has defined her life.
Berney crafts a solid story around these tragedies from 1986 that does not wallow in nostalgia, but shows the wounds of unresolved grief in realistic ways. Julianne and Wyatt are both self-destructive in ways that they don't fully understand. She is consumed with solving the mystery, while Wyatt has run away from it, until a job he needs forces him back to his home city to confront his past.
We get enough to be satisfied without an unrealistic, tidily tied up story. Which is all we can hope for in closure. I have not survived a brutal murder spree or had a loved one vanish, but like many, I've dealt with tragedy; twenty years ago, my father committed suicide. You can never really know another person, but I've tried to understand what was on his mind that day for a long time. You never get a neat answer tied in a bow, so perhaps that's why endings with varying levels of ambiguity appeal to me. A favorite is Tana French's In the Woods, which infuriates some readers, but it ends the way it should.
And so does Berney's excellent The Long and Faraway Gone.
My father-in-law's story is less a mystery, more a tragedy. He died too young, a year after retirement, after a life of service to his school district, his wife and children, and his many, many, friends. He was a fine man and a great role model, and I am better for having known him, as the world is lesser for having lost him. His wife was at his side to the end, so there is no mystery, but is there ever closure?
No, I don't think so. Unlike stories, lives often end abruptly, without meaning, with unfinished business, leaving us to fill in the blanks. Perhaps that's why we like a neatly tied bow on the end of a story, sometimes. Because it's the only way we'll get one.