Jo Ann Beard’s prose is never more intensely vibrant than when describing death. Her celebrated essay “The Fourth State of Matter,” published in The New Yorker in 1996, depicts the decline of a beloved dog and the end of a marriage before segueing into the horror of a mass shooting at the University of Iowa. Beard’s new collection of essays, Festival Days, shimmers with a similar emotional intensity, especially when evoking the flashes of memory that come to those pausing on the threshold between life and death.
Beard is known as a nonfiction essayist, but her work often reads like suspenseful fiction. Her essay “Werner,” included in this volume, is about a man who jumps from a burning building in New York City. Beard’s narration so completely enters the subjective experience of Werner, clutching his cat under his arm as he contemplates the jump, it feels to the reader like a virtual reality experience. Similarly, Beard’s prose in the essay “Cheri” conforms intimately to the physical and mental experiences of a dying woman.
Allowing her work to exist beyond the labels of fiction or nonfiction, Beard’s metaphorical patterns evince the imaginative truths that underlie her writing. Festival Days is woven from these repeating symbols: the elderly dog, the husband’s betrayal, the friend dying of cancer. In three different essays in this collection, someone falls through a thin sheet of ice into a winter lake. Twice they are rescued; once they are not. These resonances across the essays suggest a greater unity, a story unfolding over a lifetime.
Beard’s literary powers are most evident in the long eponymous essay that concludes this collection. Here, Beard weaves metaphor and memory into a stunning portrait of lifelong friendship, of those relationships that hold us and ground us across the decades, that persist with love even to the final goodbye.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Festival Days is great on audiobook! Read our starred review.