Friday, May 12, 2023

Review: Barbara Isn't Dying, by Alina Bronsky

Barbara Isn't Dying, by Alina Bronsky. Translated from the German by Tim Mohr. Europa Editions, 2023. Fiction.

Alina Bronsky's latest novel, Barbara Isn't Dying, may be one of her best. It's the subtle, slowly-building and inexorably moving story of Walter Schmidt, an older married man whose wife Barbara suffers a catastrophic injury and can no longer carry out her traditional functions, or indeed, get out of bed.

Because after decades of comfortable marriage, that's almost all that Barbara is to Walter- a carrier-out of duties. She cooks, cleans, maintains the house, does everything. Walter doesn't even know how to fry an egg.

When she first becomes disabled Walter has no idea how much both of their lives have just changed. He manages as best he can at first, which isn't very well; their adult children try to help but, busy with their own lives, there is only so much they can. Walter realizes little by little that he will have to pick up the slack, starting with just the basic chore of keeping them both fed. He does what many people do now, when they have a question- he goes online and watches YouTube videos to learn how to cook. This launches him on a trajectory he never would have imagined.

He must also reach out, for material support as well as moral support. So he broaches his community in new ways. He connects with Barbara's community- turns out, she had a rich social life he took no part in, and has many friends who are anxious to help. Walter has to first admit he needs the help, then swallow enough pride to accept it.

Barbara Isn't Dying is a very touching portrait of a man who has to transform himself to accommodate his transformed world. Walter is far from likable when the book opens; by the time you close the pages on this slim novel, you will come to empathize with him as we learn the couple's secrets and he learns that loving others and loving yourself are the same road, and we fight them every day, because it's also the only road. Highly recommended for literary and world fiction readers, Barbara Isn't Dying is an unforgettable gem.

FTC Disclosure: Europa Editions sent me an ARC of Barbara Isn't Dying in return for a review and feature on author Alina Bronsky.

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