KENT HARUF Our Souls at Night. Reviewed by Robin Elizabeth
Haruf writes about companionship, love, and the damage small minds can do to gentle hearts.
Our Souls at Night is Kent Haruf’s seventh and final book. It was published after his death from interstitial lung disease in 2014. It was perhaps Haruf’s own impending death that allowed him to so deftly shape this novel, written in his final phase of life, about the friendship of two elderly people, likewise looking towards their end days.
Like all of Haruf’s novels, Our Souls at Night is set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. This time it focuses on two elderly people, Addie Moore and Louis Waters, who have both lost their partners. The novel opens with the seemingly shocking proposition from Addie to Louis that she would like him to share her bed at night. Although it is quickly revealed that there is nothing tawdry at all about the proposal:
No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?
This is not voyeuristic geriatric erotica. It is a story about two people wanting to fill the void left by their partners. Not for the sexual relationship, but their warmth, their breath, their smell, their gentle presence radiating next to them. Full disclosure: you will need some tissues at the ready in order to read this novel.
The decision to embark upon this companionable deal begins matter-of-factly:
The next day Louis went to the barber on Main Street and had his hair cut short and neat, a kind of buzz cut, and asked the barber if he still shaved people and the barber said he did, so he got a shave too. The he went home and called Addie and said, I’d like to come over tonight if that’s still alright.
The agreement is part of Louis’s list of daily tasks, which all have a subtle nod to renewal and revival: a fresh shave, a new haircut, and, of course, embarking upon a new agreement. But the phrasing is still quite simple and direct. Almost as if reciting a shopping list.
From the outset Louis is cautious. He approaches Addie’s home by leaving his back yard under the cover of night and enters the house by the back entrance. Addie on the other hand is more bold and decisive:
I don’t care about that. They’ll know. Someone will see. Come by the front door out on the sidewalk. I made up my mind I’m not paying attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long — all my life. I’m not going to live like that anymore. The alley makes it seem we’re doing something wrong or something disgraceful, to be ashamed of.
These are two consenting adults, not only old enough to be parents but to be grandparents. As Addie says, they are doing nothing wrong and simply seeking comfort from the presence of another person in the same circumstance as themselves.
For a time Addie and Louis are able to find comfort in each other. Their partners are gone, their children are all grown up and have moved on with their own lives, but at night they have the company of each other. But for all of Addie’s bold talk of no longer caring what others think, this small bubble of comfort is soon discovered. When Louis is first confronted by his daughter Holly about his arrangement with Addie it is clear how much strength he has gained from the relationship. He simply says, ‘I don’t give a damn’. This shows how his mind-set has emerged from the shame of the back alley. But as more people find out the stakes are raised and it becomes increasingly difficult for the couple to remain together in the midst of small town gossip and family manipulation.
The style of Our Souls at Night is minimalistic. And much of the success of the novel relies on the simplicity of the narrative. There are no quotation marks, the language is direct, the length short. However, Haruf manages to pack an incredible amount of complexity and beauty into this story. Each brief conversation, written in plain language, gets the reader a step closer to Addie and Louis. Their memories and stories are so carefully crafted that you become invested in them as if they are real friends. You smile along with their shared joys and you cry at the treachery visited upon them by petty people. And in the end, with luck, you are a better person who understands the need for human companionship throughout the whole lifespan and won’t fall into the same trap as the bitter minor characters.
Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night Picador 2016 PB 179pp $19.99
Robin Elizabeth blogs at http://riedstrap.wordpress.com about her love of Australian literature, depression, and whatever tickles her fancy bone.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.