Jennifer Quist’s debut novel begins with an elderly woman, dead several days, oozing onto the thin carpeting of an Edmonton trailer home. Brigham and his wife, newly pregnant with their fourth child, have come to find out why his mom has been out of touch. “The smell in here – is it dirty laundry, a stagnant toilet that needs flushing, or fifty-five years of bad breath let out in a great and terrible exhale?” The whiff of living decay has become familiar to Brigham, but this time is different.
Brigham’s wryly anecdotal first-person voice introduces his unnamed wife as “you” rather than “she.” This second-person-inside-the-first becomes the overarching leitmotif of the book. While never overtly addressing the reader, this approach suggests we’re being engaged as a kind of substitute spouse, with all the intimacy that implies. Elsewhere, Brigham’s imagination takes on writerly omniscience as he conjures his wife’s childhood and her grandfather’s death: “So you try to imagine what your grandmother’s grief must be like … but it’s hard to see how her mood could be much different from the melancholy, recovering-Calvinist temperament she seems to have even at picnics.”
The author takes refreshing risks with the metaphoric potential of narrative voice: the wifely “you,” sometimes awkwardly sustained, nonetheless seems to be gathering toward some kind of revelation. That climactic moment arrives with mixed success, but conveys a heartfelt authorial grasp of life’s losses. Quist drives home her theme: husband and wife – Brigham and “you” – engage with the macabre, sorrowful aspects of mortality on almost every page. Happily, Brigham’s voice is marked by a gently jaded irony that’s free of pathos. Flashbacks to the couple’s feisty courtship, nuptials, and the raising of three sons bring the fractious pleasures of living back into the mix.
Love Letters of the Angels of Death gains resonance in retrospect. Quist’s subject is the paradoxical connection and division between self and other, and how love narrows the gap while making final separation the painful, inevitable counterpoint.