Book review: The Owl At The Window

Carl Gorham has written a memoir about life with his wife Vikki, her death and how he got through the first year or so of widowhood with their six-year-old daughter.


I listened to the audiobook version, which is read by comedian Alan Davies. It might be my favourite reading of an audiobook. His voice conveys real warmth and copes equally well with the emotionally devastating parts of the story as with the moments of youthful optimism, wry defeat and giddy farce.


Carl is a comedy writer, most famous for creating Stressed Eric and I wondered if this book might be a hopelessly anxious widowers guide to life but it is not. The narrative alternates between scenes from the distant and more recent past, opening with an eight-year-old Carl imagining himself a longbowman from Agincourt, and then a fragment from an undertaker’s office. The comedy doesn’t so much lighten the tragedy as inform and make it all the more poignant. It also shows how our culture’s taboo around illness and death make our inevitable meetings with these facts of life feel like surreal expeditions through a parallel universe.


Like every bereavement memoir that allows you to get to know the couple before one of them dies, I found myself willing everything to work out well for them, even though if it had, there would be no book. Still, the person who has died lives on for the reader and we try to imagine what they would think of the book, the publicity and indeed how much they’d agree with or dispute our impressions of them.


I wonder if this is why people write these books. As Nancy Berns points out, bereaved people long to tell others about the person who has died, but nobody asks us. I think writers are able to say, okay, I know you’d like this story and this person but if you can’t handle me inserting them into polite conversation, I’ll wrap it up in a way you can manage.


Bereaved readers are in for a treat. There are tales of tongue-tied acquaintances, a piece about trying to close a building society account that made me laugh out loud, and on early attempts at dating Carl says: “I imagine myself on some kind of blacklist that is whizzing round: Widower. King of bleak. Nice guy but complete downer. Please don’t invite – we’ve had complaints.”


He also articulates much of the pain and confusion that can be so difficult to put into words. Of returning from the hospital on the day they receive the terminal diagnosis he says: “Home to our house, round the corner, which we’d left two hours earlier, different people looking forward to different lives.”


There are wonderful vignettes on very British middle class dances of social awkwardness. There is also a downright difficult bereavement counsellor.


I saw one reviewer on amazon hope for a sequel and I totally agree. I want to hear more about these people – alive or dead, more about Norfolk village life and if Alan Davies could read it to me, so much the better.


First published in issue 14 of Widows and Widowers magazine

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