Review | Death and Other Holidays by Marci Vogel

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Death and Other Holidays, Marci Vogel, Melville House, November 2018

Award-winning writer, poet and translator Marci Vogel is the author of the poetry collection At the Border of Wilshire and Nobody, and this, her debut work of fiction, won the inaugural Miami Book Fair / de Groot Prize for fiction.

Death and Other Holidays follows a year in the life of April, a young woman attempting to find love in LA while coming to terms with the death of her beloved stepfather.

Set shortly before the millennium, the novella begins with the premise that April will take a photo every day to avoid ‘her memory being erased.’ So each short chapter is a snapshot of a thought, an idea or an event with titles like: Snap, Hydroponic or the intriguing Diagram of Dogs, and often works like a joke with the conventional ‘set up’ then ‘punchline’. It is a gently humorous book tinged with melancholy. Members of April’s large Jewish family are detailed in their idiosyncrasies: Aunt Arlene has one room in her house devoted to ships, Uncle Joe lives alone on a golf course with three king-size beds and four TV sets; cousin Esther can hear the plastic valves in her heart working ‘click-click, click-click’ at night time, and her grandmother won’t leave the kitchen at Passover until her grandson is paid to paint her nails.

When we meet April there’s already been a lot of sadness in her life – she’s loved and lost two fathers: her own father when she was sixteen, and her stepfather Wilson has just died from cancer. Although her best friend, Libby is there to support her, it’s Wilson’s laconic voice with his words of wisdom that she really misses. Over the course of story, April tries out new relationships, but it’s not until halfway through, as she develops her photos in Darkroom, that we see her falling in love: ‘it’s a mystery how I could have been right there and have missed so much … sitting over the pool cross-legged atop the diving board, Hugo’s cousin, Victor, in a halo of sparklers.’ The relationship between Victor and April is one of the many understated pleasures of the book: drying his dog, Victor’s hands are ‘gentle and sure, the way he handled wood, the way he touched me.’

Novelist and short story writer Aimee Bender describes how Vogel builds ‘with lightness and clear eyes a vibrant world of family, love, and loss. Skilful and charming … all made by a voice that trembles between boldness and vulnerability.’ My own experience is that, chapter by chapter this is true, and making Death and Other Holidays a brief but entertaining read.

Words by Ali Thurm.

For more on Death and Other Holidays, visit Melville House.

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