Through the Maze

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Review of 'Carrying the Elephant', Michael Rosen, Penguin £7.99

We spent the afternoon in the park. He ran around like a loon playing French cricket with the girls and ate too many peanuts. In the evening we had cold meat and salad, and then went to bed. A couple of hours later he called out my name and I knew he was dying. Then the doctors said he was dying. Then they operated and he didn't wake up. Two days later I came home and saw his plate where he had left it. On it were two curled slices of salami he'd rejected. That was when the grief hit.

A few days later a voice on the telephone told me that Mike Rosen's son Eddie had died. One day he'd been alive. The next he wasn't. Meningitis. He was 18. Nothing in the world seemed safe or certain any more. I rang Mike. I thought shared grief might help us both, but it didn't.

Reading Mike's new book, Carrying the Elephant: A Memoir of Love and Loss, more than three years later brought back those bleak days with an intensity I didn't expect. The subject of my grief had long since recovered. Mike's hadn't, of course.

Only a few of the 72 anecdotes that make up the book deal with Eddie's death. Like all the others, they reveal in a few sentences the essence of some part of Mike's life. And like all good poetry, they find a truth in very few words--a truth that jolts and gives pleasure and pause for thought. With Eddie, the prose-poems deal with their last conversation, the sight of Eddie's shoes where he left them, the words people said afterwards. All echoed in my head--yes, that's how it was.

As a collection, the pieces capture Mike's life and the world he has observed in his wonderfully original and quirky way. They take you through his youth in a Jewish radical family, to Eastern Europe and the BBC, through wars, strange ailments and family break-ups, to a new baby. They reflect his indignation and amusement, his curiosity and empathy, his sadness and joy. They get to the point--the injustice, the resistance, the ridiculous. Not once do they stray into sentimentality or self pity. And best of all, some make you laugh out loud.

'I got a letter home saying that Religious Education is compulsory. So I sent a letter back saying it isn't. They sent me a letter back saying but it is. So I sent them a letter back saying I've got the government papers saying it isn't and you're breaking the law saying that it is. And they sent a letter back saying OK it isn't and we'll write a letter home to everyone telling them it isn't.' Go buy and enjoy.