Sometimes, the minute you lay eyes on a book you just know it’s going to be a good one. That’s exactly what happened when The Dead Wife’s Handbook by Hannah Beckerman dropped through my letterbox completely out of the blue. The synopsis, the title, the colours of the cover…it all appealed to me and I knew it would be exactly my kind of book.
Rachel is at a point where she’s really happy with her life. She has a fantastic marriage, job, friends and family as well as the sweetest daughter, six year old Ellie. But then, with no warning, Rachel dies. Just like that. One minute she’s enjoying a romantic meal out with her husband, Max-the next she has heart attack. We join Rachel in her afterlife, one year on from that fateful night as she narrates us through the grieving process she sporadically witnesses her family going through, as well as her own.
We all say that should we die, we’d want our loved ones to move on. We mean it too. I don’t think many people would wish for our loved ones to constantly grieve, lock themselves away and fail to live their lives the best they can. But what if we witnessed this moving on? How would it feel to see your husband fall in love with someone else? The memory of you begin to fade from your children’s lives? Seeing the life you should have had being played out before you, minus you? Jealous, angry, hurt? Even if rationally you know it’s right. And this is how Rachel feels as she drifts between a white nothingness interspersed with brief ‘access’ to moments of Ellie and Max’s lives as they begin to move on.
I think it’s a credit to how sensitively Hannah Beckerman writes Rachel that I was pretty much immediately on side and sympathetic to her. Rachel is already dead when the novel starts, so we never get a chance to connect with her alive. It could have gone wrong, and she could have come across as bitter and awful. Instead, I empathised with her and it made me think about how I would feel. Honestly? Probably the same.
But at the same time I felt sorry for the ones left behind and thought Max’s portrayal was especially thoughtful and endearing as he struggles between people telling him it’s time to move on and the feeling that it’s too soon. His first, tentative steps into the dating scene are filled with guilt, awkwardness and uncertainty. It’s also injected with very subtle hints of humour which bring with it a realistic and human element. This is as much Max’s story as Rachel’s, if not more. As a mother to a daughter of very similar age to Ellie, I found Rachel’s observations of her life particularly heart breaking and fully understood them. Ellie herself was sweet, if a little underestimated in her maturity. I think, perhaps, I feel this through comparing her to my own daughter rather than it being a criticism. It does go to show how well I did connect with Rachel, that I could fully put myself in her place.
The Dead Wife’s Handbook is an incredibly original and touching book. At it’s heart is a fear we all have- “Will I be remembered?” Rachel’s journey through her family’s lives in the two years following her death is both sad, yet heart warming and reassuring. It’s definitely a book I’ll remember and one I’d happily recommend.
Published by Penguin UK February 2013