Moving, charming, delicately lovely, this memoir of a husband’s death offers solace and even joy.
Poet Elizabeth Alexander (Crave Radiance; the 2009 Inaugural Poem) was enjoying a loving, creative, exultant and full life with her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, and their two sons, when Ficre died suddenly. The Light of the World is her record of that man–a husband and father, an artist, activist and chef–and of Alexander’s grief and gratitude for the years she shared with him and the love and family they made.
This astonishing and naturally poetic memoir of love and loss is vivid and abundant with sensory detail and bright color. Alexander includes recipes–Ficre’s, and those that comforted her after his death; gives evocative descriptions of his paintings and the food and music they both loved; counts his scars; and recounts her dreams of him. But The Light of the World is not a dream itself: Alexander is lucid and absolutely present. Perhaps to ward off the end it threatens, the story she sets out to tell starts, and starts again, and starts again: at their respective mothers’ pregnancies; at Ficre’s 50th birthday, the week of his death; when they met at a coffee shop in 1996. Alexander then resolutely travels through the tragic center of her story and into the life that follows, when her family of four becomes “a three-legged table,” as she phrased it in her first poem afterwards. In this tender, perceptive portrayal, Ficre comes alive again: an Eritrean native, a peace-lover born into war, a painter also accomplished in photography, collage and sculpture, an eager reader fluent in seven languages and who “could say hello and thank you in literally dozens of other[s],” an activist and member of African, African-American and global communities. “Your life is just like a foreign film!” a friend rightly exclaims, and Alexander’s is just the voice to portray his broadly informed, musical, painterly existence.
Short chapters and language of unrivalled beauty ease a sad story, and Alexander and her sons do make a joyful noise in the end. She feels that she carries “a Santa’s sack of gifts” of Ficre’s thoughts and impressions that belong to her alone; she celebrates the time they had. Their shared dreams, scars, meals, songs, dances, history and family are fittingly and exquisitely honored here.
This review originally ran in the April 23, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade
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Rating: 9 red lentils.
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