BY JULIE CHADWICK
The writer C.S. Lewis believed that after the loss of a partner, the bereavement phase marked not the end of the marriage, but rather another phase within it. It is with this sentiment that local author Carol Matthews opens her latest book, Minerva’s Owl (Oolichan Books), a meditation on the love and loss of her husband Mike.
Matthews is no newcomer to the writer’s game, and has penned a number of books, including a collection of short stories, and memoirs on cancer and being a grandmother. In 2012, she was awarded the Order of British Columbia for her decades of service to the community, including a role as an early executive director of Nanaimo Family Life, where she will launch the book on Sunday, Jan. 28.
Minerva’s Owl was years in the making, as Matthews worked to avoid falling into the category of what she calls “me-moirs,” where storytelling becomes mired in ego.
“I was very apprehensive about it because it was so personal. I had mixed feelings. It was kind of a tribute to Mike and to long relationships, but it also felt like maybe it was a bit self-absorbed,” says Matthews. However, when an early piece on grief was shortlisted by The Malahat Review for its creative non-fiction prize, it encouraged her to press on.
The result is a careful, nuanced treatment of an intensely private subject that feels universal. Though filled with personal detail, Matthews successfully navigates around the navel-gazing she was concerned about, to offer a story that is both transcendent and relatable.
“It’s not just about grief, it’s also about what really matters, what’s important to you, and how do you hold onto that? I think it’s realistic in that it’s not perfect, and there are really bad times,” she says. “It’s not always ideal, but it’s a relationship that matters, and I think sometimes we forget that while the person is still there.”
The searing nature of Matthews’ emotion, and the eloquence with which she describes it, absorbs readers with a slow burning intensity. Divided into six sections, one piece entitled ‘Longing’ describes the return to an earlier phase of their relationship with particular poignance:
“I’m now sorting through a large file of the letters I wrote to you from Montreal, fifty years ago. You saved them all, folded back into their envelopes. As I read these letters, I ache for you as I did then. A hopeless longing and a precise one,” Matthews writes. “Reading these letters I relive my longing for you. The way I felt then was not unlike the way I feel now, but the desire now is even greater, more intense. At the time I felt brave being on my own, but it requires much more bravery to be alone now. To have had and to have lost you.”
It is in her ability to put the reader so completely inside the actual daily experience of loss — a loss made all the more poignant because of the remarkable marital bond she shared with her husband — that Matthews particularly shines. This quality also makes it a haunting story, because Minerva’s Owl is also a letter from a destination we will all eventually get to, one way or another.
“It’s going to happen to all of us, one of us — you just don’t know which one, if you’re still together,” says Matthews, adding that there is some comfort in knowing she has spared her husband Mike the sorrow she has endured. On this, she writes, “For a moment I can be pleased that I am the one who is left alone. This is my last gift to you, suffering the bereavement. It will be different for me in the end.”
Literacy Central Vancouver Island and Nanaimo Family Life will host a reading of Minerva’s Owl from Carol Matthews at 2 p.m. on Jan. 28 at Nanaimo Family Life, 1070 Townsite Rd.
Author and freelance writer Julie Chadwick works for the local non-profit Literacy Central Vancouver Island and is the author of The Man Who Carried Cash (Dundurn Press), about the relationship between Johnny Cash and his Canadian manager Saul Holiff.