Nobody can accuse Dennis McFarland of not listening to his readers. He wrote his new novel, Singing Boy, in response to a woman who sent him a letter regarding one of his previous novels, The Music Room. In that narrative, McFarland suggested that tragic loss improves those who remain behind, and this notion angered the woman. She had lost a son to suicide, and in her letter, she emphasized how tired she had become of everyone constantly checking for "signs of progress" regarding her grief.
Sarah, the main character in Singing Boy, seems to have sprung directly from this mourning mother's missive. At the novel's outset, Sarah and her eight-year-old son, Harry, witness a maddeningly random act of violence that yanks Malcolm, her husband, from both their lives in an eye-blink. Deckard, Malcolm's best friend, steps in to try and help Sarah and Harry through the aftermath of this crisis, but he often ends up being the voice of our prescriptive society, much to Sarah's vexation. She repeatedly resists his attempts to spur her and Harry's return to the living world, keeping Harry home from school for weeks while refusing to resume her own work until she feels ready.
The relationship between Sarah and Deckard becomes increasingly strained, and although Deckard appears to embody the voice of reason, his own demons return to plague him during this critical time. Between his service in Vietnam, a difficult relationship with his father, and a previous alcohol and drug addiction, Deckard finds himself suddenly consumed, after Malcolm's murder, by flashbacks and images that he had successfully shut out for years. Though McFarland sometimes flirts with sentimentality, the narrative on the whole works to question our accepted boundaries of grief, suggesting that when we urge others in mourning to return to their "normal" lives, we do so for our own benefit and comfort, not theirs.
The landscape is inevitably bleak, but McFarland's prose often evokes moments of beauty from that very darkness, as when Sarah sits in the hospital after Malcolm's death: "Sarah, chilled and chilled again, thought in a kind of dreamy stupor that the room was a great lung, its breathing through the automatic doors erratic because it, like the whole world, was dying into the same strange dream." In such passages, McFarland deliberately haunts that which is banal, demonstrating vividly how loss taints our perception of the familiar.
Jenn McKee teaches at Penn State University.