Grief is a tricky, tricky thing — particularly when you have no guidelines to help you through it.
Such is the case for 12-year-old Josh, a young man whose mother has just died in a car accident. Alone for the first time with his four-year-old brother Sammy, who has taken to sleeping in Josh’s bed and talking to his mother through a Power Ranger action figure, and his dad, who is now holed up in the basement watching home movies and working on a time machine, Josh is left to mourn his mother while simultaneously grappling with the fact that everything she once did — and was — has now vanished.
Catherine Austen’s Walking Backward is a quiet novel about grief and unanswered questions and, as you’d expect, it’s not exactly an uplifting read. The novel is Josh’s journal, told entirely from his perspective, as requested from the grief counselor the family has been seeing after his mom’s passing. Encompassing just a few months in the lives of one family, Josh is entirely preoccupied with determining the “right” way to grieve — and trying to find a method that works best for he and Sam. Austen’s explorations of the many world religions and how they mourn their dead was fascinating and, to me, the best part of the story.
Much of the book is about snakes, of course — because Josh’s mom died after suffering a severe panic attack while driving. A snake was found in her car, police determined, and his mother’s snake phobia was absolutely crippling. Working through the grieving process for Josh means figuring out how and why there was a serpent in the car; he remains absolutely convinced it didn’t just slither in on its own. He has to learn how this could have happened so he can move forward. And help everyone else move forward, too.
It’s hard for me to really examine my feelings on Walking Backward . . . I can’t say I “enjoyed” it, because it’s not really the sort of novel you enjoy — and I have to admit that it was, for me, painful to get through. Austen is a very nuanced writer; I absolutely believed I was reading the diary of a 12-year-old boy. But the subject matter is so, so tough, and who really wants to think about losing their mother? (I certainly don’t. And if you have, my heart is with you. And stay away from this one.)
My heart broke for Josh, Sammy and their dad, and I wanted nothing more than for their mother to run back in the house, laughing about the great prank she pulled on all of them — I mean, ha! Honestly! Thinking she’d died after seeing a snake. What a bunch of silly gooses!
But that didn’t happen, of course. Life never works that way. And all we could hope for, as readers, was that their small family would find some sort of peace and resolution — and that Josh, so perceptive and wise beyond his years, would help his little brother remember more of the mother they lost.
After finishing, I made myself a mug of hot tea, wiped away the tears and promptly listed this one on BookMooch. Children grappling with the loss of a parent would relate to Josh’s uncertainty and pain, and they’re the audience to which I would most recommend this novel. Everyone else? I’d steer clear unless you’re ready to feel your heart splinter all through your chest. But if you need a good cry, hey — Walking Backward is your book.
3.5 out of 5!