“You’ve got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice. You’ve got to keep your mind off pitying your own rotten luck and setting up any kind of a howl about it. You’ve got to remember that things as bad as this and a hell of a lot worse have happened to millions of people before and that they’ve come through it and that you will too.” – James Agee, A Death in the Family.

For A Death in the Family, the title pretty much explains what happened in this book.  If you are into suspense, intrigue, thriller – all those adrenaline-pumping kind of stuff, this is not the book for you. However, if you are into all of these stuffs but sometimes ponder the meaning of life; its vicissitudes, immortality, fate, faith etc, then expect to be sobered. This book explores these themes, only as an off-shoot of death and death alone. You might find answers or you might be bamboozled into more questions. Either way, you won’t be left untouched.


Loss and grief isn’t only an aspect of the book. It is the core of the book. A good man dies and the entire family grieves, each in their own way.

Why does anyone read a book that talks about death and pain and grief?

Perhaps, because like happiness and summer vacations and books and party jollof, death is an unavoidable fact of life. Remember your “MR NIGER D” – that mnemonic for Science students that helped us remember the “characteristics of living things”. The “D” there is Death. Only the living dies. Ostriches too die, and when they do, they become part of the sand where they have their heads buried half of the time. A double shame!

So there. Reading a book like this, is one way I embrace my immortality.

A Death in the Family is an autobiography cast in the somber tone of grief, and the platitude of faith (or lack of it, platitude that is). The book is potent in the way it is searing. It is very poetic too.There are no spikes here, just gently flowing tears at the language Agee summons in bringing the characters to life.  What the book offer is more in the realm of the stream-of -consciousness narrative than in actual hierarchical story plot . The dialogues are more of a literary prop than a narrative thrust. Think Hemingway but with a bit more verve.

The beauty of this book is the language; the virtuoso’s fingering that pulls at your heartstrings. This is a book poets would like. The sentences are simple. Plot is practically non-existent. From the get-go, you get a sense of foreboding (an attribute of the language) and you’re mentally prepared for whatever comes. What you probably didn’t imagine is that this death will have you angling for an outburst because the sorrow will be steady, spreading evenly throughout the course of the pages. And when the story is done, you will carry this slowly diffusing pain for days before recovering.

The five-star quality of this work is well-deserved. I was at a loss for word after I finished this book. I couldn’t really say this is what it’s about beyond the pain.

I couldn’t even muster a whoa!

What kept me flipping the pages and will keep anyone flipping is the entrancing power of Agee’s talent. Agee’s writing cut to the bone – the initial denial, the drifts of thoughts, the silent cry, the muffled emotions, and the crashing wave from a far distance that breaks in your stomach. So evocative you are jolted afresh to the reality that death happens in the middle of life .You could leave home in the morning with a nod at your family, and never come back.  It’s that simple, that ordinary.

This story feels personal to me the way tragedies do. Moreso, it’s deep understanding of loss and grief. Often we forget that it’s not the person who dies that suffers, it’s the ones left behind.


It is funny that I should think about the flat lining of the ECG when I think about this book, for it is what it is – a discontinuous motion of some sort.  The discontinuity is only felt by the living, making death, an important function of living. A beep comes and goes, comes and goes, comes and goes. Through our sorrows and pain and grief, life trudges on.

“Well, now, some people learn a little quicker than others. It’s nice to learn fast but it’s nice to take your time too.”

“And no matter what, there’s not one thing in this world *or* the next that we can do or hope or guess at or wish or pray that can change it or help it one iota. Because whatever is, is. That’s all. And all there is now is to be ready for it, strong enough for it, whatever it may be. That’s all. That’s all that matters. It’s all that matters because it’s all that’s possible. ”

“And God knows he was lucky, so many ways, and God knows he was thankful. Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn’t what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.”

Also, there is an interesting aspect to this book, which is the story behind the story. The author James Agee died of heart attack at 45 before completing the novel. The editor David McDowell was the one who picked the rough manuscript and hewed it to the gem we read today. The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1958.

I have long held a fascination for death and dying so there is no way this would not make the list. The writing made it utterly compelling. When you are finished with this one, you’ll hug somebody tight if you have a heart.



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