A heartfelt memoir of grief and loss from one of Cape Town’s top writers

Review: Vivien Horler

Death and the After Parties, by Joanne Hichens (Karavan Press)

The cover of this memoir is beautiful. A white porcelain heart, patterned with blue flowers, over which gold threads meander.

It was only after I’d finished the book and was staring at the cover that the meaning of the gold threads sank in. (There are I think two references in the book so I was perhaps a little slow.)

Towards the end, when author Joanne Hichens is just beginning to recover from her grief at losing her husband, she visits her therapist and announces: “I’ve started acting classes… And I learned to do kintsugi… And I’m back at the gym!”

She explains kintsugi: “The ancient Japanese art of fixing splintered pottery with lacquer mixed with gold or silver is the remaking of the fragmented into something precious.” She has mended a broken dish of her mother’s, and adds: “Finding treasure in life’s cracks, I work with imperfection, create a piece of art.”

And that’s what the cover shows: a broken heart, partially mended, perhaps more beautiful than before.

Joanne Hichens

Hichens is a fine writer, best known for her detective thrillers. About 10 years ago she and her family entered “the valley of the shadow of death”. Her mother developed lung cancer, was given six weeks to live, and died six weeks to the day after her diagnosis.

Hichens had thought she would fall apart, but she coped. Three years later her husband Robert woke up with what appeared to be indigestion, and within 15 minutes of walking into Constantiaberg Hospital he died. He was in his early 50s.

Now Hichens nearly did fall apart, although she had to stay strong for her three children aged 20, 17 and 11. Three months later her father died, followed within 36 hours by her mother-in-law.

And now it wasn’t just Hichens who found herself in pieces, but her family of siblings too.  They had been the children of diplomats, sent to boarding schools, going “home” to fabulous places all around the world, and yet never quite belonging, in their family or anywhere else. Hichens herself went to 13 schools.

“There were so many chasms and rifts in our childhood,” said Hichens this week at the launch of the memoir at her home on Muizenberg hillside, with its sweeping views of False Bay.

“Childhood issues came to the fore, even though mom and dad weren’t there. I don’t think I was the easiest sibling… In real life it’s not so easy to accept one’s siblings.”

Or as she says in the book: “How do I accept my own role in the degeneration of relationships? With mom and dad out of the way, we have all behaved as badly as the other. Our petty resentments stop us from forgiving each other. We are unable to, or choose not to, let go of our own pain.”

Neither her two brothers nor her sister has read the book.

This is a memoir of loss – not only of Robert, her parents and her mother-in-law to death, but also of her siblings – and also one of courage.

She is agonised by the death of her husband – whom she loved dearly but with whom she had tiffs, including the night before he died, when she “unfriended” him on Facebook – and shrieks: “Where are you?”  Through the memoir she refers to her late parents and mother-in-law as “she” and “he”, but Robert is addressed directly as “you”.

Slowly she starts to feel a little better. She writes of the time, about a year after Robert’s death, when she realises: “It is becoming clear that it is no longer beneficial to be loyal to my suffering.”

She takes great comfort in her children, and the happy relationships they have forged with each other. She reads widely about death, and this comforts her too.

One of the pleasures of the memoir for me is how grounded it is in Muizenberg and the south peninsula, describing walks on Sunrise Beach, visits to Kalk Bay and Fish Hoek. It is geographically very local, but describes truths that hold for everyone, everywhere.

And at the end she is left with a heart that is scarred, but strong.


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