27 February 2014

Book Review: The Dead Wife's Handbook by Hannah Beckerman

"'Today is my death anniversary. A year ago today I was still alive.'

Rachel, Max and their daughter Ellie had the perfect life - until the night Rachel's heart stopped beating.

Now Max and Ellie are doing their best to adapt to life without Rachel, and just as her family can't forget her, Rachel can't quite let go of them either. Caught in a place between worlds, Rachel watches helplessly as she begins to fade from their lives. And when Max is persuaded by family and friends to start dating again, Rachel starts to understand that dying was just the beginning of her problems.

As Rachel grieves for the life she's lost and the life she'll never lead, she learns that sometimes the thing that breaks your heart might be the very thing you hope for."

Rating: 5/5

You can buy The Dead Wife's Handbook as a paperback or an eBook now.

Occasionally, there is news of a debut novel that sounds so amazing, you just know you want to read it the minute you get your hands on it, and hope that it's worth all the excitement around it. One of those books for me is Hannah Beckerman's debut novel The Dead Wife's Handbook. With its straight and to-the-point title, you know what you're getting with this novel, and I've been looking forward to this since late 2013, when I first heard about it. I was utterly thrilled to be sent a proof copy from Hannah when I won one on Twitter, and I am pleased to say that the book was every bit as good as I was expecting, and much, much more.

Rachel's life was utterly perfect. She was happily married to Max, living in their beautiful home with their young daughter Ellie, and thought she had it all. However, when she suddenly dies, Rachel leaves behind everything she held dear and precious for her. But Rachel soon finds herself watching her loved ones from afar, unable to communicate with them but able to see them grieving for her, living their lives without her around. Rachel isn't prepared for how difficult she finds this new aspect of her new existence, and as Max, Ellie and the rest of their family move on as time ticks on, Rachel wonders how she is going to cope seeing her life being lived out without her being a part of it.

You can tell both from the synopsis, and even the title of the book, that this is going to be a hard-hitting emotional read. I've read lots of books that have really touched me, that have lingered with me long after turning the first page, but The Dead Wife's Handbook seems to be on a completely different scale. As I was reading, I just could not stop myself from putting myself in Rachel's shoes. As the mother of a young son, leaving him behind is my worst nightmare, and I could not think of any worse to happen that for me to die while he is so young. Rachel was going through this living nightmare, and it is very hard reading throughout. She is forced to watch her daughter from afar, learning to live without her, watching her cry over missing her mother and eventually beginning to get on with life without the huge burden of grief hanging over her. The way she is only allowed infrequent glimpses into their life too shows how separated she is from their reality, often missing months at a time and having to hope no significant changes have happened in Ellie and Max's lives.

This is painfully raw reading, and Beckerman narrates it so perfectly. She hits on every emotion with such accuracy that you really feel everything along with Rachel - and you don't have to be a mother for this to resonate with you. It's an amazing portrayal of grief, of loss and heartache. Rachel yearns to be with her family, but knows it's impossible. I felt so sorry for her, stuck in a situation she would give anything to not be a part of, and watching her family get on without her and start to introduce new people into their life was heart-breaking, it moved me to tears several times and as I said, really hit home with me. Rachel's narration is emotive, and the fact we get the flashes into Max and Ellie's life through her means we see not only their life, but Rachel's opinions and emotions on everything too, a very unique and touching narrative.

For me, though, my favourite character by far was Ellie, Rachel's young daughter. Hannah Beckerman writes this wonderful little girl with such realism, she seems real to you as you're reading and my heart hurted for the pain she was going through. At such a young age, she doesn't how to cope with the loss of her beloved mother, and her relationship with Max, her father is so beautifully written, and so moving, hearing the pair discuss Rachel, her effect of their life and keeping her alive for Ellie in her mind. Max, too, was a fantastic character, being pulled in all directions by the people that he loves. He's a grieving husband, still deeply in love with his deceased wife and not knowing how to move on, you feel so desperately sad for him and as he moves forward with his life, I was just hoping that he and Ellie could find a happy ending of their own in some way, one that Rachel could be at peace with too.

For me, this stunning and thought-provoking debut novel is one of the best books I have read recently. While it is a tragic subject, and reading about it isn't easy, at times it is indeed quite painful, Beckerman's writing is just perfect and deals with the issues in the book sensitively and with such grace. As a young mother myself, I hated what Rachel was going through, and I did find the novel hard to read, as I kept putting myself in Rachel's shoes, and consequently it was a very emotional read for me. It makes you think about that awful 'what if' moment, what would happen to your family if something terrible were to happen to you. It's a very raw book, some will find the subject matter too close to home, but for me it was a stunning portrayal of grief, love and loss, and cannot fail to move even the coldest of hearts. For a debut, this is amazingly written, and I cannot wait to see what Hannah Beckerman will come up with next. Poignant reading at its absolute best. Simply brilliant.

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