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A Stone Boat

by Philip Culbertson

“It was terrible how much I loved my mother. It was the most terrible thing in the world.” And how wondrous and terrible it is to watch one’s mother die, as this novel chronicles.

On a family trip to Paris, Harry learns that his mother has cancer. Over the next two years, he struggles with the fact that she cannot face his love of men and will not meet his lover.

He wants her next to him on the piano bench, and yet builds his concert career in London, outside her easy New York reach. By day he plays for her — Scarlatti and Beethoven and Schubert — and at night he loses himself in house music at a gay dance club.

Above all, he struggles with how tightly he wants to hold his mother, hoping this will allow him one day to let her go. Ultimately, Harry is left “no longer more than a shadow of what and who I had been”, yet the reader is left the stronger for it.

There are some books that should be reissued — and reread — once every 10 years. This is such a book, originally published in 1994, and now reissued, presumably in the light of the author’s prize-winning 2001 study of his own depression, The Noonday Demon. When originally published, it was runner-up for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction prize.

The style is autobiographical, yet it is not at all, and very wise. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief are here, along with an emotional unfolding of what our parents mean to us. The profundity that comes through suffering, the way memories fade and then ascend again, the way we use others as substitutes with whom to act out our grief are all explored.

Harry’s mother is in her early 50s, yet age is not at issue here. This could be the story of anyone whose beloved parent dies a long, slow death. So much of one’s life has to do with acceptance and rejection of what one’s parents have represented, and then when they die we lose the very reason for most of what we have done.

The novel’s tone is intimate and deeply moving, with so many well-crafted turns of phrase that I found it, in my delight, almost impossible to put down. It is a paean to mothers and their sons, to the beauty of Italy and pink peonies, and to how much more we learn from the difficult pleasures in life than from the easy.