Author: Michael Kimball

2011, Tyrant Books

Filed Under: Literary.

Us, Michael Kimball’s brief novel, begins with an everyday tragedy: the narrator’s wife has a seizure in bed early one morning. She does not wake up. She does not move, and soon stops breathing. The bulk of Kimball’s slim novel is an unflinching account of the husband’s new life caring for his wife and waiting for her to wake up again. Although he succeeds in creating a believable and touching narrative, the author soon reveals he has even broader ambitions in mind.

A typical paragraph of Us reads:

One of the nurses took the blood away for the tests and then two other hospital workers came in and took my wife away for other tests. They rolled her out of her hospital room and down the hallway on her metal gurney with her IV bag and her respirator along side her. They were going to test her heart and also her brain. They were trying to find out how much of her still worked.

The husband’s story is told in this effortless prose, blow-by-blow, often brutally undercut by the kind of sentence that ends the above paragraph. This is particularly effective when Kimball breaks away from the medical procedures such as feeding, cleaning, and moving her limbs to keep circulation, and into the husband’s personal touches, like the list of household noises he records to play for her in the hospital, everything from the sound of the dishwasher to the noises of their house settling in the night.

This account alone would be interesting enough, and Kimball manages to keep the reader engaged despite what could be a very predictable storyline by the unexpected and touching turns the narrator takes, and in part by the leading chapter titles (How My Wife Would Not Wake Up, How Much of Her Still Worked, How My Wife Started to Move Again.) But on page 42, the first time the narrator leaves his wife’s side during the ordeal, is a chapter called “Come Back to Sleep with Me,” a simple plea from the unconscious wife, a voice the author will return to.

As the novel progresses, a concurrent narrative develops alongside the husband’s, told by the couple’s grandson who is trying to make sense of his grandparents’ love by meticulously imagining their last days. Kimball switches between these three points of view, coloring in the details left out by the husband’s stark narration.

At 184 pages, Us feels even shorter because many of the chapters are only two or three pages long, and the brisk style of the prose is so quickly read. Us will last an afternoon, or a long plane ride. The book was originally released in the UK in 2005, and it would be interesting to compare editions. The author may have missed an opportunity to exploit the grandmother’s voice further between publications–although the chapters told from her point of view are effective, they are few and far between, expanding her point of view may have added another lens and deepened the story even further.

But this is a minor complaint. Kimball takes many risks in Us, and the turns in the narrative, the shifting voices, and the unexpected departures could easily have fallen flat. But instead the risks pay off, leading to a conclusion that is as surprising as it is inevitable, and deeply satisfying.

[A review copy was provided.]