Descriptions of Heaven
by Randal Eldon Greene
Harvard Square Editions
Release Date: November 22, 2016
Available through Ingram, Baker, & Taylor, Brodart, Amazon, & bookstores everywhere
A linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death—news of an unknown creature in the New Bedford Lake coincides with news that Natalia’s cancer has returned.
On the shores of the lake in a strange house with many secret doors, Robert and his family must face the fact that Natalia is dying, and there is no hope this time. But they continue on; their son plays by the lakeside, Natalia paints, Robert writes, and all the while the air is thick with dust from a worldwide drought that threatens to come down and coat their little corner of green.
A lament for what is already lost and what is yet to be lost, Descriptions of Heaven leaves only one question to be asked: What’s next?
Take risks was my motto for October. Try new things. That is how Descriptions of Heaven appeared on my reading list for the month. Now if you know a little, you know I scare easily and I steer clear of sad stories. How come am I reviewing a novella such as Randal Greene’s then?
But then again, what does love care for a fish in open water when there is one in the net?
Yes, I could tell you this is a sad story and that you must be in the right mood to read it. But it would be too easy a description. Because for all the sadness oozing off the pages, life comes in waves, every emotion washing over you as you turn pages. Sadness, of course. You can’t read about a mother plagued with cancer without your heart tightening in your chest. Curiosity. Does a monster really inhabits the lake the family lives by? Lightness, for the sound their boy laughing, discovering, playing. And the sense of routine that no life escapes, whether you have a limit date or not.
I dived into the story of Robert, Natalia and their son with trepidation, I was determined not to get too involved to avoid spending an hour crying after I finished it. But this quiet novella took me by surprised, and it was only when I closed the book that I realized I was involved all along, I was living with them, I was sharing their doubts and their questions.
What is rage worth when it is life that one is raging against?
It started with Robert’s fascination for words. You see, he is a linguist, and as a language learner, I spend hours of my life scrutinizing English words, dissecting suffixes and discovering meanings. I possess an endless curiosity for letters forming concepts and notions of everything around us. We have words for everything. Almost. If we don’t, we create them. Even for concepts as mysterious as Heaven. I know the word, you know the word. We are familiar with the concept. But what is behind it? What is hiding under those 6 letters? How do you grasp the meaning of something you have never seen, never experienced? There is no answer. The author did not get a special authorization from a God or the President to share this secret with you or me. But he explores it, tries to put other words to create a concrete answer for his son, for his dying wife, for himself. Because death is too scary to be left a mystery, and we all look for answers. Robert’s way is to find the words. Or try to.
I thought the intricate sentences, images, and metaphors used in this novella would have the same effect the writing in classics does: distract, then bore me. But here the writing fits the story. It’s beautiful, lyrical, without being pretentious, and each chosen word draws you closer to the events and characters, envelops you with its curves and melodies. It is the story of a man in search of answers.
I abandoned the books of my childhood, and I read the classics where the heroes do die, where sometimes there are no heroes.
Curiously, Robert is the linguist, but it is Natalia, his wife, who masters the words, according to him.
Natalia is a mystery. A loving mother, a caring wife, a sick woman. But there is so much more to her. I don’t care for art. Paintings don’t talk to me, but to know that Natalia is an artist, and that it influences everything she does, and how she sees things, helped me understand her a little more. Randal Greene masterfully created a character who fights in silence, who faces life with her heart and her feelings out in the open. I loved meeting her, and her last journey seen through her husband’s eyes was beautiful to witness.
A normal family. A mom, a dad, a son. A house that looks more than a maze. A lake. Seasons. Leaves. You won’t find action in this novella, you will find life served by a beautiful writing. Its beginning and its ending. And it is okay, because rather than focusing on the horror of it, you will be caught with the smell of yummy food, a mystery, a love story. As my friend Annie says, sometimes a quiet story is all you need.
My rating: 4/5
I received an ARC of this novella from the author in exchange for an honest review.
Randal Eldon Greene’s short fiction has appeared in VLP Magazine, 34thParallel, as|peers, Unbroken Journal, NPR online, and elsewhere. Greene holds a degree in English and Anthropology from the University of South Dakota. He is a volunteer judge of fiction for Heart & Mind Zine and works full time as a seeing eye human for his blind dog, Missy. Greene lives in Sioux City, Iowa. His typos are tweeted @authorgreene and his website is found at authorgreene.com