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Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem
The Globe And Mail
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Section: Book Review Special Report
Byline: Sherie Posesorski
By Julie Burtinshaw
Raincoast, 308 pages, $11.95
‘You can’t sit shivah forever,” the narrator of Andrew Holleran’s novel Grief is told by
friend, exasperated by how long he has been grieving the death of his mother. “Yes, you
can,” he replies.
So too would reply 17-year-old Bryan Bianchi, still consumed by grief two years after the
death of his adored older sister Michelle, in Vancouver author Julie Burtinshaw’s fourth
teen novel, The Perfect Cut.
His father orders his wife to remove all pictures of Michelle from the house. He seldom
mentions her name, doing so only to shame Bryan over his inability to move on, and to
imply contemptuously that, in his eyes, the wrong child died. While his mother seems to
go along, she has turned Michelle’s room into “The Michelle Shrine,” as Bryan puts it,
retreating there with her anguish, regrets and memories that she is unable to share with
Bryan, as he is unable to share his with her. Each is isolated in his or her sorrowful
fortress of solitude.
Bryan remains the little brother who admired, idolized and emulated his big sister even
more in death than he did in life. The rebellious, defiant Michelle was his protector,
defending him especially against his father’s verbal bullying. She was also his companion
and teacher, jump-starting his interest in music and guitar playing. The corrosive
cocktail of anger, grief, loss and longing for Michelle is intensified by the guilt he
feels for his complicity – unwilling though it was – in the circumstances of Michelle’s
death, a secret whose weight only grows more crushing as time passes.
“Death ends a life, but not a relationship,” U.S. psychologist Therese A. Rando has
written. In many ways, Michelle’s relationship to Bryan is even stronger in death – it’s
his closest relationship still. He is so haunted by her that he believes he hears her
voice and can see her ghost, egging him on.
The most intriguing element of the novel is Burtinshaw’s acute rendering of how Bryan
keeps Michelle alive in his life by living life as she did. Just like Michelle, to
express rage and relieve tension and stress, and as only Bryan knew, he begins to injure
himself by cutting and burning himself with cigarettes. When the fleeting endorphin high
that comes with cutting dissipates, Bryan numbs himself with vodka he steals from his
mother’s stash, and with drugs.
Initially, Burtinshaw provides an intensely close-up focus on Bryan’s cutting. Described
in such an excess of detail, it soon feels claustrophobic emotionally and dramatically, a
bell jar with the reader also underneath the jar, with no air or vision of the outside
world, for too long a stretch.
The novel springs to life in a gripping interlude where Bryan befriends a runaway,
homeless meth addict named Chris. Chris is vividly and touchingly captured; however, the
other characters are flatly executed types (particularly the therapist with the cutesy
eccentricities and cloying therapy sessions), giving Bryan no other character of
substance to play against.
Burtinshaw switches back and forth between third- and first-person narratives,
obtrusively slipping in expository snippets from the points of view of Bryan’s mother,
therapist and housekeeper, to supply the counterweight of mature viewpoints on his
While the treatment of cutting is clinically correct and plausibly handled, the
trajectory of Bryan’s pain, catharsis and recovery is less absorbing and persuasive than
it might have been. He is sympathetically drawn, but defined too narrowly by his
pathology and grief. In Margo Rabb’s YA novel Cures for Heartache, teenage Mia’s
perspective on the death of her mother comes across as uniquely hers: a blackly comic,
genuinely poignant evocation of her experience and a wistful mediation on it.
“What is the point of mourning?” Andrew Holleran writes in Grief. “Just this –
faithfulness. And love.”
Only when the tenacious pain of grief evolves into mourning is Bryan finally able to let
go of his grief and guilt, realizing that doesn’t mean having to let go of loving and
Sherie Posesorski’s teen novel about 16-year-old grieving the death of her mother will be
published next year.
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