I often write positive things about books for their structure, their ideas, their prose, or their contribution to the literary dialog, when what I really want to be writing about, what I am always seeking, is a book’s heart. Does a book say something worth saying?
This profoundly beautiful book, The Gifts of the Body, by Rebecca Brown concerns itself with human goodness, and performs the miracle of making long-term-illness, infirmity, pain, suffering and death, hopeful, calming and uplifting. The narrator is a home-care worker caring for people with AIDS ( a job the author has done), and writes with dignity and generosity about the bodies and minds of the people she cares for. She looks carefully and directly at things most of us find frightening to contemplate, and makes them less terrible with her simple presence. In each story, there’s a “gift” that the story revolves around, often a particular part of the client’s physicality that’s a crisis point or challenge in the story (“The Gift of Hunger” for a woman who cannot eat, “The Gift of Skin” for a man who lets himself be washed). The gift of the body—the volume title, but not a story title from the book—is the narrator’s own gift. A human being can drive away the dark just by being present.
The structure is deceptively simple but has cumulative force and by the end all the giving has worn upon the giver—caring for people unto death is perhaps not something a person can do, compassionately, indefinitely. The narrator’s own struggle is rendered with the same gentle precision. The story “The Gift of Sight” starts with the line, “This guy was the scariest to look at.” This is the one she is holding when he dies, one of the many endings in the book that brought me in tears. (But not in a depressing way. Read it. It’s wonderful.)
The book was published in 1995, when the author briefly jumped to HarperCollins after a career in publishing at City Lights, and it’s funny that the presumably topical pop of the AIDS crises ends up being the lesser aspect of the book. It’s an AIDS book, but it wouldn’t have to be. We’re all going to die someday.