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Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother

by Helen Humphreys

Loss is an open wound, a pain so enormous we reflexively turn away from it to keep from breaking. To examine grief would be to welcome the pain, to keep it alive. In her new book, Helen Humphreys not only examines grief, but distills it through the clarity and rigour of her prose, living within it and transmuting it into something beautiful and profound.

Although they lived some distance apart, Humphreys and her younger brother Martin shared a closeness that is unusual and enviable, even between siblings. Both driven by artistic pursuits – Humphreys as a writer, her brother as a pianist and teacher – their relationship as adults was built upon their intimacy as children. They were each other’s supporters and confidantes, cheerleaders and counsellors. Martin died at age 45, mere months after being diagnosed with stage 4B pancreatic cancer.

Nocturne begins with a simple statement of purpose: “This is what happened after you died.” Plainspoken and straightforward, that line sets the tone for what follows. In a series of short, evocative, unadorned chapters, Humphreys traces her life after her brother’s death, chronicling the reality of grief in a world that moves on, and contrasting the pain of loss with the facts of living: a new puppy, a new relationship, the taste of an apple straight from the tree.

What that opening line does not convey is how well the reader will come to know both the author and Martin. An impressionistic memoir, Nocturne explores Martin’s illness and the nature of the siblings’ relationship – their shared stories, love, and disagreements – all without a trace of sentimentality.

Nocturne is a stunning book, heartfelt without being maudlin, and deceptively devastating. Humphreys doesn’t simply offer readers a portrait of her own grief, she draws them in. In retrospect, that opening line lands with the force of a blow, a punch to the heart that will leave you gasping.