The death central to Nona Casper’s incredible new book, The Fifth Woman (Sarabande Books), happens within pages of the book starting. Michelle, the live-in girlfriend of the book’s unnamed narrator, is hit by a car while riding her bike to work and dies in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. And as much as it the event that drives the fifteen brief vignettes that make up the rest of the novel, Michelle’s death becomes less of a starting point for the rest of the book and more a centerpiece, a thematic rock that the rest of the book can slowly orbit. Casper’s novel ostensibly follows the narrator chronologically as she lumbers through the motions of grieving, but to place a structure like time — or reality even — upon it would to be limit the scope of what the author is able to do in even a volume as brief as this. The Fifth Woman is an ecosystem of grief; a circular cloud of emotion, memory, and experience that bends towards the surreal, exploring, or so it seems, every nook and cranny of the aftermath of the death of a loved one.
The novel’s first story, “Ants,” is as plot-driven and as exposition-heavy as these pages ever get, acting as the book’s foothold into reality before Caspers slowly lowers the reader into the deep haze of her narrator’s grief. This isn’t saying much though as the story acts as a microcosm of what will come next – wide angle views of the narrator’s life past and present, pockmarked with the infinite details that make up existence paired with Caspers’ gorgeous, surreality-infused descriptions of everyday life. “Ants,” as the rest of the book will continue to do, leaps from to past to present to future and back again, a shifting cycle of remembrance and remorse, acceptance and rebirth. “We were dining on bowls of parsley, pea greens, and carrot tops” Caspers writes, her narrator looking back to a simple moment after Michelle’s death, the only kind we remember moving forward, “because the local market had had a sale and we were Midwesterners and sick of eating regular salads.” The chapter, and the book as a whole, is beautifully rife with these sorts of recollections, the mundane aspects of our relationships that only pop up in the wake of unexpected absence.
As the narrator slips further and further underneath the weight of her grief, the book follows suit, sinking slowly, almost unnoticeably at times, into heavier, more abstract scenarios. This is never forced; instead, Caspers walks the reader slowly into stranger and stranger moments, each of her narrator’s retreats from life drawing us closer to the soft, bass-line thrum of pain she’s going through. There are points in the book — the narrator discovering her disappeared boss has actually just hiding in a supply closet for three weeks in “Reception” or her day-long excursion with two dead friends in “The Ocean” — where reality seems to have been sidestepped altogether. The narrator’s sorrow, perhaps even her depression having become such a weight on her, the only option for escape is in the arms of her imagination.
The Fifth Woman isn’t an easy read. It is about death and the slow spiral of grief it can cause, but Caspers writing never allows the excursion downwards feel overly burdensome. Even the darkest of moments, Caspers’ descriptions are dryly funny. Describing a homeless woman in an alley, Caspers writes, “One of the women wore a tight lime-green shirt that sculpted her fat into sections, her legs sticking out from the shirt in a way that made her look like a panda-shaped balloon.” Beyond this though, as deep down the depression hole as her narrator gets, Caspar never makes it seem as if grieving is the end point. Instead, her writing makes it feel, even in the depths of strangeness she gets to, that this is a journey, a natural point in life. That we love and sometimes that love is taken from us, that we grieve and it is difficult, but in the end we move forward, the smallest of recollections of what came before still clinging to our thoughts.