Falling Out of Time by David Grossman
(translated by Jessica Cohen)
Knopf, 2014; 208 pp
Reviewed by Megan Turner
“I seem to understand / only things / inside time. People, / for example, or thoughts, or sorrow, / joy, horses, dogs, / words, love. Things that grow / old, that renew, / that change. The way I miss you / is trapped in time as well. Grief / ages with the years, and there are days / when it is new, fresh. / So, too, the fury at all that was robbed / from you. But you are / no longer. / You are outside / of time.”
Language is inadequate. Writers and poets use it to express their thoughts, yet words often get in the way of true meaning. Falling Out of Time by David Grossman is a story about language as much as it is about grief. The story describes men and women circling about their town just as the language in the novel circles, attempting to find the right words to describe grief, or more specifically—the loss of a child.
The novel is reminiscent of Waiting for Godot and perhaps E.E. Cummings’ poetry, which the author references. Yet, Falling Out of Time is a piece that stands on its own—with lines centered more in the realm of poetry than in the concrete world of prose.
Translated from the original Hebrew, Falling Out of Time starts with a man and a woman, later described as the “Walking Man” and the “Woman Who Stayed at Home.” The couple have lost their son and are finding it difficult to continue their lives without him. As a result, the Walking Man begins a journey to find what must be left of his son while the woman stays at home and later observes “atop the belfry.”
As the story continues, other characters join the walking man, including: the Midwife, Cobbler, Duke, Net-Mender, and the Elderly Math Teacher. These townspeople have all lost either their sons or daughters. Their grief manifests in different ways (for example, the Midwife stutters while speaking), but their grief is also what unites these characters.
An interesting dynamic, especially, exists between the Town Chronicler and Centaur, who is described as part writer, part desk. These characters have both lost their children as well, but the Town Chronicler refuses to remember his daughter, saying the Duke has forbidden him from doing so. Instead, he chronicles the day’s events with supposedly little heart while the Centaur writes, clearly overcome by grief.
“I begin to / listen to the different layers of his sobbing until I / hear one I know well. If I were to cry, this is likely / how I would cry,” says the Town Chronicler. “I listen. From the minute the / thing happened to my daughter, I forbade myself / any self-pity whatsoever. This requires, of course, / a certain degree of self-control and constant / guardedness. At night, too. I cannot forbid the / centaur to cry, however.”
This is a difficult read but one that deserves the time and attention—and likely a second or third read as well. The language is deceptively simple. The author is careful of both his word choice and placement. An accomplished book by accomplished writer, this novel examines the space between life and death and how a person may carry the death of a loved one inside of him. It is a hopeful story in the end, I believe—one that describes the hardships involved in overcoming loss, especially when one has little propensity to do so.