In the last decades, the grief memoir has become a genre of its own, a form of public mourning and sometimes of self-therapy, where the bereaved search for a meaning in the chaotic pain that comes with the death of a child, a sibling, a parent, a friend or the imminent death of the self. But intense grief commonly turns a world upside down. The death of a loved one resists meaning and it plays havoc with the order and chronology of language. How can words give shape to shapelessness or articulate silence and dissolution? As Emily Dickinson said: “Abyss has no biographer.”
Several of the most powerful memoirs of recent years (Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?, Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, Marion Coutts’s The Iceberg) grapple with this question of how grief threatens to obliterate language and erase the boundaries of selfhood and of time. The dead are not gone; time has ceased and time continues; the relationship is not over. Hisham Matar writes in his intensely moving requiem for his father, The Return, that “my father is both dead and alive. I do not have a grammar for him. He is in the past, present and future.”
In her slender, anguished meditation on the loss of her father, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie immediately confronts the painful difficulty of expressing “grief’s core” and finding a tense in which to write about someone who is utterly gone and yet vividly present. In the first pages of Notes on Grief, in which she describes his sudden death, she uses the past imperfect (to evoke continuity and the comforting repetitions that were about to be ruptured), before succumbing to the abrupt past perfect: “My brother Chuks called to tell me, and I came undone.” The subsequent account of this unravelling is told in the present tense, as if Adichie is writing a diary, each short chapter a fragment from the front line of bereavement. In fact, her Notes are carefully structured to tell the aftermath of her father’s death, from the discovery (when she sees his dead face on Zoom), through the mourning period and the ghastly lockdown waiting for flights and the funeral and out – kind of – on to the other side of raw sadness, where “a new voice is pushing itself out of my writing, full of the closeness I feel to death, the awareness of my own mortality, so finely threaded, so acute”. And the final chapter is a deft triumph of linguistic contradiction: “I am writing about my father in the past tense, and I cannot believe I am writing about my father in the past tense.”
Adichie’s novels are large, bold and capacious, holding vast geographies and huge historical events as well as individual lives. They cover continents and sweep across decades. Notes on Grief is narrowed down to this single explosion in her own life. Much of it is located in her own body, for grief is sensation, and Adichie gives an eloquent account of how it hurts: the air turns to glue as she gasps at it, her sides ache, she cries with her tired muscles. She has a bitter tongue, a weight on her chest, her insides are dissolving. Grief is in her flesh and muscles and organs; she is eyeball to eyeball to it, so close she cannot make out its shape.
At the same time – language groping after language – she picks up and then discards a series of different metaphors, over and over again saying the same thing (no no no no): her father’s death is an undoing, an unravelling, a solidifying, a drowning, a scattering of selfhood; she is in the centre of a violent churning and she is on the outside of her self, looking in and calling herself “you”.
James Nwoye Adichie was Nigeria’s first professor of statistics, and, his daughter writes, a peaceful, prudent, kind and honourable man, known for his integrity, his attentiveness. He had lived a long and good life and was 88 when he died. Yet woven through Notes is the agonised question of how his death could have been prevented, as if he should have lived for ever. Indeed, there is a sense in the first weeks of loss that dying is a scandal – that he should have remained in her life always, her protector and a place of timeless safety. Adichie, a fervent feminist, calls herself an unashamed “Daddy’s girl” (she quotes her cousin telling her: “You should just go and marry your father!”). She writes that she not only adored him, she also liked him so much: in her elegy, he stands as a model of manhood – “his grace, his wisdom and his simplicity… his luminous, moderate wit…” Her nickname for him was “original dada”: like God, then, like the primal ancestor. Her father is also her Father, her patriarch, her history, her identity, her world; he is both intimate to her and he is an abstract on whom she can pattern herself.
Notes on Grief is a moving account of a daughter’s sorrow and it is also a love letter to the one who has gone. Adichie wants him back; she wants to rescue him from death and to tell him once again how much she adored him. She is saying don’t go and she is saying goodbye and she is also saying sorry – for the writing of grief is to acknowledge an ending and, thus, as Jacques Derrida had it, as soon as you write, you are asking for forgiveness.
• Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is published by Fourth Estate (£10). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply