Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Art of Death: Book Review

Published July 11, 2017
Award-winning novelist Edwidge Danticat writes about her mother's cancer symptoms, diagnosis, treatments, and subsequent death in her 2017 book The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story.

Losing one's mother is jarring. 

Danticat does share personal details about her mother and tries to convey the dynamics of their relationship. However, more than half of the book takes a literary approach to the topic of death.

A writer herself, it makes sense that Danticat immersed herself in the works of forty plus famous authors who have written about death.

For example, she explores the writings of DeLillo, Didion, Garcia Marquez, Lewis, Lorde, Morrison, Sexton, Tolstoy, and Wilder. 

After examining a statement by Camus, Danticat steps back to make this observation:

"We write about the dead to make sense of our losses, to become less haunted, to turn ghosts into words, to transform an absence into language. Death is an unparalleled experience, so we look to death narratives, and to the people in our lives who are dying, for some previously unknowable insights, which we hope they will pass on to use in some way" (p. 29).

She also talks about deaths that are more public--the jumpers from the Trade Towers, the earthquake victims in Haiti (her homeland for the first 12 years of her life), the children and teachers shot at Sandy Hook and more.

But the more powerful passages are those written about her mother's life and death.

"One of the tragedies of death is that it interrupts a lifelong dialogue, rendering it a monologue. Instead of talking now, my mother mostly listened. As I watched her sleeping in the hospital bed in my house one night, I tried to imagine a type of story I could tell her to keep her awake, and thus alive--a story that would never end" (p. 149). 

Death did finally come to her mother, but through the pages of The Art of Death, Danticat extends her mother's life as a way to expressed a shared humanity. We all must grapple with hard deaths, including but not limited to the death of our mothers. And in the struggle, we explore what it means to live, to be human, and to love.


Books on the Dying Process


  1. Oh my goodness that excerpt/quote. Turns it into a monologue, indeed.

    1. She writes very tenderly and thoughtfully about her mother. Danticat is very kind to make herself so vulnerable. Thanks for reading/commenting.

  2. Wow very beautiful and powerful writing. Teared up just reading p.149! Thanks for sharing and reviewing Karen.

    1. It was hard to pick a quote that encapsulates her journey by her mother's side. She has a poignant dream after her mother's passing, but it would be way to long for me to include that. Thanks for loaning Danticat your compassion.

  3. Yes Karen, this is a topic I think about often. Thanks for sharing these insights with us all.

    1. Danticat brings an equal measure of emotion and reason to this challenging topic. She's a gem. I've only read two of her books, but I plan to read at least on more in 2018.

  4. The quote from page 149 brought tears to my mom as I sit here looking at my own mother.