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from the October 2019 issue

A Poignant Memoir by Naja Marie Aidt Grapples with the Trauma of a Tragic Death

Reviewed by Nataliya Deleva

The Danish writer creates a meta-text of mourning as she grieves the loss of her son in "When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book."

A dream. It’s a foggy afternoon. I am in a forest, playing a ball game with my granddad. I am three or four years old. My mom has gone somewhere and I don’t know where she is. I feel abandoned and scared. I don’t want to play the game. I can barely see through the fog anyway, so I cannot catch the ball when my granddad passes it to me. Then everything disappears and I am all alone in the forest. I don’t remember much else, I have no idea how much time has passed; it’s just this heavy feeling of nothingness that has enveloped me and I feel almost strangled by my own anxiety.

This dream stayed with me for years, and I would always evoke it subconsciously when feeling anxious, or abandoned and unworthy. One day I came across a photo album and there, on one of the pages, was a picture of me in the forest, playing a ball game with my granddad. I froze—it was as though someone had entered my dream and captured a snapshot. A photo of a nightmare that had followed me for years.

My mom then explained that this event did indeed happen and that she had left me alone for a brief moment in that forest. A brief moment, that’s what she said. To me, that time had stretched to an eternity.

I realized how dreams and memories had become jumbled, how the imaginable had entwined with reality to create something new—a powerful and unsettling feeling. Although the picture showed a seemingly happy moment, the thought of that day triggered an unpleasant sensation in me. Somehow, I’d managed to distance myself from it, to bury that memory deep inside me. And yet, this single recollection had a huge impact on so many events in my life.

So I started asking myself: What are memories? How trustworthy are they? Are they supposed to be true or are they some form of deeply inverted reality? And how much of this past information locked in our minds affects the way we live?


memory

noun

1. the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information.
2. something remembered from the past.

From Latin memoria (“the faculty of remembering, remembrance, memory, a historical account”), from memor (“mindful, remembering”), from Ancient Greek μέρμερος (mérmeros, “anxious”), μέριμνα (mérimna, “care, thought”).

The power of remembering, the power to be mindful, to care about someone, but also to be anxious. To be anxious while thinking of someone, while remembering them.

Power. Thinking. Remembering.


I approached When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt almost blindly, not knowing what to expect, not digging into book reviews; it was the text in its pellucid form that mattered to me. With the very first pages, I sensed it was something special—unsettling, intense, and beautiful at the same time. I was fascinated by the way trauma is exposed here, the way it’s narrated—through fragments, borrowed voices, and memories. This book itself creates a meta-text of grief, giving context to all these voices: other writers, poems written by Carl or by his brother after his death. Going through the pages was like pressing myself toward a sharp edge—painful and unbearable, though there was no going back.

If my own experience with trauma could appear to be connected to a somewhat minor childhood incident, Aidt’s memoir is a response to what we immediately recognize as a catastrophic blow. The book was originally published in Denmark in 2017, two years after the harrowing event it tries to grapple with: the death of the author’s twenty-five-year-old son in a tragic accident. Mostly known as a writer of poems and short stories, Aidt was driven to this autobiographical account in an attempt to work through the event, to narrate her grief and accept the loss. The book won the Weekendavisen Literary Prize in Denmark and has just been longlisted for the National Book Award. It is also a finalist for the 2019 Kirkus Prize.

This memoir tells the story of a mother grieving her lost child through a text that seems broken but somehow perfect in its imperfection as it tries to recount such overwhelming pain. The narrative begins with the telephone call that brings the devastating news and proceeds to reveal the reasons behind the event. Aidt’s writing is anything but straightforward, however. It stretches over the pages, delaying the end, lingering in the sudden abyss of emptiness as if she is reluctant to admit to herself the inevitable outcome.

Although centered around Carl’s death, the book is much more about his life and the way he exists in his mother’s memories. This is the world Aidt constructs, while coming to terms with the loss and acknowledging it. Exposing the traumatic experience—not only the event but the following days, weeks, months, and years, enveloped in nothingness, in no-time—is the only way for her to begin to accept life after this unimaginable event, while keeping her son close to her.

In a recent interview for Louisiana Channel, Aidt mentioned that the only thing she believes in is poetry. And this is her prayer, a kind of repeated mantra—the poetry she’s left behind, the language, the constantly repeated memories—just like Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” plays on loop in Carl’s hospital room during his final minutes. Aidt repeats the story in a loop too, so she can get used to it, create distance, and accept it in herself at the same time.

The structure of the text resembles a tree: there’s the trunk, or the main story from the moment of receiving the phone call until pronouncing Carl’s death, and all the additional branches sprung from it: quotes, diary notes, poems. In order to write about her tragedy when her own language is suddenly permeated by nothingness, Aidt resorts to different registers and other writers’ works, quoting authors as various as Joan Didion, C. S. Lewis, Anne Carson, Mallarmé, Plato, and Nick Cave.

The book follows the mind’s impulse of evoking past events and searching for their meaning, which is conveyed in bursts, reordering the chaos caused by the initial shock, creating a patchwork of imperfect shapes, unfinished work, unsaid words, stitching them together. Each fragment in the text seems to exist in a limbo of its own, in the cracks of time—much like Aidt does in the days and months following the devastating loss. Just as the mind reconstructs the traumatic events in memories, going back to them over and over again, the narrative constructs meaning through repetition, borrowed fragments, flashbacks.

What are memories? How true are they? Are they supposed to be true or is this a deeply inverted reality? These questions are not important. The only thing that matters is that they’re true to the person remembering them at that very moment. And so Aidt evokes these memories, laminate cuts of past life, of precious events, to save them from eroding (as our memory often does) and leave them on the pages like a herbarium for the days to come. These memories, like dried flowers, collected and assembled, carry Carl’s spirit, preserved for eternity. 

“We are part of each other.
Are you part of me?
Yes.”

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