Notes on Grief continues, in 30 short, lucid chapters, for 90 pages. It will not delay you long, but what it leaves will stay with you, like figures caught in a strobe light, lined up so closely that you can jump from one to another with a jolt that captures the jerkiness of the hours and days and weeks that follow the detonation.
It begins with Adichie viewing her father’s body — but she is in New York, he in Nigeria. The deathbed is revealed on Zoom, which, as so many have discovered in the pandemic, both shortens and lengthens the distances that divide us from those we want to be with. Here is her father’s body in intimate close-up, but she cannot share her grief with those who also grieve: her brother and mother are in Nigeria with him and her two other siblings are elsewhere in the US. Meanwhile, she is screaming on the floor of her apartment. Her brother observes: “You better not get any shocking news in public since you react to shock by tearing off your clothes.” I recognise too that distance, that feeling of both detachment and proximity, as well as the intense vertigo of grief. It’s a brutal cocktail.
From the mundane to the magnificent, scenes from what has clearly been an extraordinary life emerge. Adichie’s father was Nigeria’s first professor of statistics, educated at Ibadan, the country’s leading university, then at Berkeley, California. He knew great achievements, but also great loss. His entire library, for example, was burnt by soldiers in the Biafran war: “Mounds of charred pages in a pile in my parents’ front yard, where they once grew roses.”
Adichie’s “wretched, roaring rage” is thus revealed as the price one pays for a lifetime of love. As she wrote in her 2006 novel, Half of a Yellow Sun: “Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved.”
Notes on Grief, written during the weeks and months following the death, (it first appeared as an essay in the New Yorker) is both emotional and austere, a work of dignity and of unravelling. Spare and yet spiritually nutritious, the book serves as a reflection of Adichie’s turmoil in loss. It is also an exquisitely written tribute to her father, James Nwoye Adichie, who was Nigeria’s first professor of statistics : his self-effacement, sense of calm and wry humour shine through. A lover of sudoku puzzles, he was fondly called “the original dada” by Adichie.
For fans of the famously private Adichie — she deferred news that she had become a mother until well after the birth — this is fascinatingly intimate. It is also delivered in the most readable, tender bites for any of the many of us whose attention has been shot by the harrowing of this past year.
Notes on Grief is a moving account of a daughter’s sorrow and it is also a love letter to the one who has gone. Adichie wants him back; she wants to rescue him from death and to tell him once again how much she adored him. She is saying don’t go and she is saying goodbye and she is also saying sorry – for the writing of grief is to acknowledge an ending and, thus, as Jacques Derrida had it, as soon as you write, you are asking for forgiveness.