A Severe Mercy
How to even begin? This ought to be required, read and re-read at a young and impressionable age: let it leave an indelible divot on a soft-formed soul: black marble on a new grave, a walk through the terminal ward; hold the car-struck kitten's head and watch it die. Let spring meet winter while it's young. Would that make it any easier? No? Then no one ought ever to read this book. It should be banned, burned, forever forgotten and wholly unmade with the one ring and a summer snow. Let it die with a dying fall.
As I must begin, let me begin by saying that this book was beautiful. I cannot emphasize that enough, and probably won't even try. Their love was staggering. As full and conscious and devoted as any I've ever heard of. It was liltingly lovely, with the literary lives, the shining barrier, the conversations with Lewis and Joy, St. Udio's (Studio), the yacht, and so, so much more. It was a truly lovely, heartbreaking book.
The title is taken from a comment from Jack (C.S.) Lewis. He was speaking to Sheldon Vanauken, the author, and said that as all mortal loves must die, perhaps it was a "severe mercy" for the love to perish with one of the lovers. For this book is the finish of a fairy tale love and ends after the "happily ever after," with "to the end of her days."
I made three abortive attempts to begin this book. I don't do that. Ever. It simply does not happen. I will usually read a book in a day, sometimes as long as three, or not at all (writers like Dalrymple and Dunnett take a bit longer). If I start a book, I either finish it fast or I put it on my "who on earth was their agent and how can I hire him" shelf, also known as the "if this moron got published why am I still working ninety-hour weeks in North Freezing Dakota" shelf. The "Left Behind" and "Twilight" shelf. This book was none of the above. I didn't even try to review it for the first four months. The abortive attempts all ended on the same page, with me setting the book aside as I wept bitterly and thought of Pound: "His dice be not of ruth."
So now I am left in an awkward position. This is one of the most brilliant books I've ever read. One of the most worthwhile, the most lovely, the most useful, and will become among the most often referenced. But for me it was easily, hands down the most devastating: Narn I Hin Hurin was a tale for toddlers; Notes From Underground was pleasant by comparison. There is nothing I've read that brought me closer to the edge of nihilistic "God damn You God!" despair as this book. If you have a month you can set aside for becoming a hermit, reading the Bible, this book and raising cute little cuddly fuzzy things, do it. If you've not yet been hit hard by death, read it now, while you can. If you are at the beginning of a relationship, give Glory to God, READ IT NOW. Not tomorrow: now. Not even because of the death, but because of the life up to the death. If ever there was a love that ought to have been given the resurrection without the death, it was theirs. Imitate it.
But if you've loved and lost, and to love means to lose, sooner or later, then I don't know what to say. You might take comfort in this book. I didn't: I came as close to praying for death as I've done since I lay on a bed with my face buried in my dead wife's wet hair. I understand suicide: the desire to go to sleep abut a cold bare wall for the last time, to never again wake up with her freckled face before your eyes until you open them, to not face that same damned day again: to go to sleep for the final time. I understand that. I know that longing, and it is a small step to an irrevocable fall. If you are prone to morbidity, don't read this. It will kill you.
So there it is. The most beautiful, self-sacrificial love I've ever seen, ever heard of, preserved forever. The way to obtain a love like that. Its birth, life, redemption and death. The prose is extremely good; the friendship with Lewis, priceless; the references to books and music, invaluable; the cost, absolutely catastrophic. Make your choice. But if you can at all read it, though you have to put yourself on a Haldol drip and communicate by clicking your straight-jacket clips with your teeth as a result, do so.