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SHIVAH begins with a death and ends with a redemption.
A middle-aged woman, her sisters, and her aunt, finally manage to trick Mother into an alcohol rehabilitation program only to find, once Mother has dried out, that there is something terribly wrong. She has Alzheimer’s and has had for some time. Once the diagnosis is determined, it is clear that Mother will not allow herself live a sober life: she will continue to self-medicate, she will sink further into the spiral of her own depression and memory loss, and she will, effectively, say good-bye to the little time she has left. Having hidden the disease for some three years, Mother is grateful to give up the subterfuge.
The diagnosis serves as a prompt for her eldest daughter, Leah, the narrator of SHIVAH, to mourn the loss of all possibility of a relationship with her mother, as she also realizes that Mother’s life is largely unknown to her. And Leah feels great guilt at having assumed her mother’s past two years of confusion and anger were due to late-night drinking rather than the slow loss of her mind. She tries to discover and then create Mother’s life, honestly assess contradictory relationship she has had withMother, while taking great pains to honor the Biblical imperative to parents.
The novel is divided into seven parts to mimic the seven days of shivah, the Jewish period of mourning, in which mourners enter the home of the bereaved and sit and pray with them. But the seven sections of the novel highly symbolic and metaphorical, as they are loosely constructed around rituals observed during shivah: the grief at the initial loss, the washing of the hands, the ceremonial meal, the telling of stories about the deceased, the reciting of the prayers for the dead, the examination of the souls of the living and the statements of comfort for those left behind. SHIVAH is both a spiritual and emotional journey for Leah but it is not a sad one; there is joy, happiness, peace, true knowledge and, ultimately, understanding.
Read the Interview with Lisa from Sinking City.
What does it mean to grieve a loved one for too long—and to have no choice in the matter? In her debut novel, Lisa Solod explores the terrains of grief through seven parts. While the structure borrows from the seven-day Jewish mourning practice, Solod’s prose reminds the reader that each day carries a lifetime’s worth of memories, contradictions, and precarious emotional attachments. To accept death in the face of little familial reconciliation requires demanding malleability from the processes by which we use to mourn the ones lost.
Solod’s novel begins with Leah witnessing the death of her mother, a woman who’d used alcoholism as a means to cope with her dementia and later Alzheimer’s. Leah’s not alone in navigating her mother’s demise. Her two sisters, aunt, and young daughter also feature prominently throughout the novel as these women reckon with what they once knew to be true of the maternal head of the family. Solod’s writing demands that the reader take their time with this family. In beginning with death, Shivah works to peel back the complexities behind not only the women of this family, but the emotional drainage that one experiences when forced to grieve a loved one while they’re yet still alive—even as the concept of what it means to be a “loved one” gets continually challenged in this family.
It’s no small thing that Shivah’s subtitle is “a novel from memory.” Memory plays an integral role as Leah deconstructs the memories of her mother—featured then as a vibrant, independent, bipolar, and emotionally abusive woman—while attempting to coexists with the fragmented parts left behind by Alzheimer’s. Memory of course is often less about the order in which events get remembered or even which ones linger. It’s about the gaping wounds and euphoric highs left in our bodies.
By mixing memory with grief, Solod deviates from any linear structure of storytelling or one predicated by an overdependence of plot. Shivah is about emotional resonance and Solod’s novel barrels towards its moments of emotional fracturing. Sometimes it’s between Leah and her siblings as they grapple with what’s owed to their mother during her slow demise, Leah and father, whose struggled to support his wife’s navigation of mental illness and his daughters, and of course Leah and her mother. By the end, we’re rewarded with a quiet moment of resolution, along with the reminder that acceptance is not necessarily something that can be found at the “end.”
In Lisa Solod’s novel Shivah, family relationships are turned upside down after an abusive matriarch is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Leah’s mother was an unpredictable presence in her life. She only cared for her children when it suited her, and she ignored and insulted them the rest of the time. When their mother starts acting strange, Leah puts it down to years of alcohol abuse, combined with bipolar disorder and the usual parental neglect. She believes that she has her mother figured out. But an Alzheimer’s diagnosis forces Leah to reevaluate their relationship.
The prose is warm, flowing, and textured, mixing prose with poetry, quotes, and journal entries. Written as a detailed character study, it explores the realities of living with a difficult parent. Leah faces deep philosophical conundrums when reality crashes through the stories she’s told herself about her life—and about her mother’s life.
During shiva—the seven-day period of Jewish mourning that follows the death of a close family member—each day is designated its own focus to help with the mourning process. Inspired by this custom, the novel is divided into seven chapters, one for each day. It is steeped in Jewish spirituality, numerology, and theology, and it turns the commandment of honoring your parents inside out. Returning to the same situations, but from different perspectives each time, Leah struggles with questions of how to honor a parent who never honored her children; how to mourn the cognitive loss of a parent who never showed her true self; and how to hold someone accountable when that person has no memory of their actions. Shivah is an introspective novel in which a daughter trades her angry resentment for compassion and love after her mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
—Erika Harlitz Kern
SHIVAH is a moving meditation on the multiple, complex, and often conflicting layers of grief. Through her narrator’s spiraling introspection, Solod asks what it means to lose someone long before you’ve lost them, to grieve what might have been as well as what was.
—Ilana Masad, author of All My Mother’s Lovers
“The ritual of SHIVAH offers comfort and connection, a way to let mourners know they aren’t alone in their grief. Lisa Solod’s thoughtful, moving novel named for this ritual does the same. Anyone who’s dealt with an alcoholic mother, or an emotionally abusive mother, or a mother with dementia or similarly painful and complicated issues, will find comfort and connection in these pages. I found so many echoes of my own complex mother and our tangled relationship in this novel, myself, and am grateful for the sisterhood and insight Lisa Solod provides.”
—Gayle Brandeis, author of The Art of Misdiagnosis
“SHIVAH is a sad and enlightening portrait of three daughters who are suffering through their mother’s demise from Alzheimer’s. Touching despite its rage over the terrifying effects of this particular illness, the novel illuminates the inevitable downward trajectory of a fatal disease often misunderstood. Solod gives her readers a command performance—one that leaves the reader filled with empathy and sympathy both.”
—Linda Gray Sexton author of Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, and Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide
“But grief has its own timeline,” just like these words, SHIVAH honors and reveals Lisa Solod’s ability to cut into the soul of grief. I felt privileged to be let into the multilayered relationship between a daughter and her mother.”
—Carly Israel, author of Seconds and Inches