(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)
There are those books that you read that are beautifully written, lovely and sweet, full of great characters and a pleasingly wrought plot that leave nary a mark upon you emotionally; and then there are novels like The Collected Regrets of Clover by Mikki Brammer which all of the aforementioned boxes, and yet possess that something extra, that magical quality X that elevate them to the point where you feel as invested in the life of the protagonist as you do your own family and friends.
Perhaps that is taking things too far but the truth is within a few pages of diving into this book by Aussie journalist Brammer I felt linked to Clover Brooks in a way that went beyond what I would normally off to the lead character in a book, and I am someone who feels deeply about everything from, pertinently in this instance, the novels I reads and sometimes even to the commercials I watch.
But there’s feeling and there’s feeling, and The Collected Regrets of Clover delivers the latter in spades, the sort of novel that sticks with you because it takes you deeply into the world of its protagonist in a way that lots of books attempt but not all deliver on.
You could be forgiven for wondering if it will be all that different from the many other wonderful “happy redemption” books out there, all of them part of an upliftingly appealing genre that serves up a person caught up in a giant fossilising rut of their own making or crafted cruelly by others that they have neither the will or energy to surmount who through people, places or a quirk of time, finds their lives jumpstarted in a wholly vital, new direction.
I glanced at my phone, balanced on the faded sofa arm. The only time it ever rang–aside from robocalls about car insurance and fake IRS audits–was when someone wanted to hire me. Socializing was a skill I’d never really mastered. When you’re an only child raised by your introverted grandfather, you learn to appreciate your own company. It wasn’t that I was opposed to the idea of friendship; it’s just that if you don’t get close to anyone, you can’t lose them. And I’d already lost enough people.
Still, sometimes I wondered how I got to this point: thirty-six years old and my whole life revolved around waiting for strangers to die.
We all love reading these books because they offer up the understandably beguiling idea that whatever has happened to you in the past does not need to linger around you like concrete shoes in a very deep ocean, but that it can be disappeared or ameliorated, valuable lessons learnt and a found family coalesce around you in a way that changes everything.
The thing is, wonderful though these books are, and they are a treat for the heart in ways that alleviate the burden simply of being alive, they don’t always feel all that relatable.
There’s always an air of being slightly removed from the world around them, a fairytale quality if you like, that works delightfully well in the context of the book but which doesn’t translate to you feeling like here is someone real who I could be or might be and don’t really want to be anymore.
But Clover is different; Clover, who is a “death doula” who empathatically and with great love and concern accompanies people through the literal dying days of their lives, is so relatable it can be a challenge knowing precisely where to begin.
(courtesy official author site)
If you, and anyone you know, has grown up feeling cutoff from people around you, isolated in your cosy but imperfectly emotional world, you will find much to identify with in Clover Brooks.
She has no real friends, happy with her interior world, or so she claims, crafted after some family trauma at the age of six heightened her introvert need for human contact on her carefully-controlled terms meant she was perfectly happy with her grandfather, her books and her bookish knowledge, the kind that asked “why?” and “how come?” and really nothing else.
But now at 36, she finds herself caught in her grandfather’s as-is rent-controlled apartment in New York City wondering, as the back cover of the novel sagely observes, “what’s the point of giving someone a beautiful death if you can’t give yourself a beautiful life?”
Clover finally has to admit she is in a stasis of grief and loss and that with hopefully so much of her life ahead of her – though she’s aware, thanks to the example shown her by her grandfather and some artfully-used matches, that she cannot take that for granted – she needs to start doing some living before the living can no longer be done.
It’s a slow and gradual, stop-start epiphany that feels just like the kind you might have in real life which never run their course like they do in Hollywood movies or certain Bible stories and which often sneak upon you, darting around the wall of resistance you have to their presence and finally hitting their mark often in ways you don’t see coming and think you don’t want.
‘I’ve watched you spend your life trying to help people have a beautiful death–the thing you couldn’t give your grandpa … but the secret to a beautiful death is to live a beautiful life. Putting your heart out there. Letting it get broken. Taking chances. Making mistakes … Promise me, kid,’ he whispered, ‘that you’ll let yourself live.’
I rested my head on his shoulder. ‘I promise.’
Clover, who is achingly vulnerable, real and very human in a way it’s impossible not to identify with, think she doesn’t want a different life until she realises she manifestly does, and it’s this slow-creeping realisation which powers the wondrously, emotionally honest narrative of The Collected Regrets of Clover and which gives it all of its considerable emotional heft.
Thankfully, Brammer has written her debut gift of novel in such a way that it never feels like some sort of preachy polemic about leading a rich, better and more fulfilling life; Clover’s life isn’t awful and she is not a terrible person but could her life be more alive, more populated by friends and maybe even a love interest?
It could be, all of our lives can and could be, and Brammer beautifully takes incipient moments of revelation and crafts them into a gathering wave of change that feels wholly authentic and much like what would happen in the real world though also with a heady dose of hopeful magicality that always comes with those moments when everything changes.
The Collected Regrets of Clover is a gem of a novel because it goes beyond all the emotional and narrative touchpoints of books in the “happy redemption” genre and does something quite affectingly remarkable by showing us someone very much like us who’s caught in an enervating web of her own making and who finds in ways delightful and achievably grounded that she can change, her life can be different and her world can change and with it (all with the help of people like her beloved neighbour, Leo), a pedestrian walk to death can be suddenly and wonderfully transformed into a happy and fulfilling dance through life instead.