In The World Without You, Joshua Henkin explores the different ways in which family members grieve after a journalist is murdered in a warzone.
The novel centers around the Frankels, a financially comfortable Jewish family from Manhattan who spend the weekends and summers in their Berkshires country house. The clan is composed of Gretchen, a wealthy but difficult grandmother; David and Marilyn, grieving parents facing the dissolution of their marriage; daughters Clarissa, Noelle, who Lilly bring along their attendent spouses, significant others, and children into the tale. And then there is Leo.
In a way the main character, if in absentia, Leo was a journalist covering the war in Iraq. Captured and murdered in a very public way, Leo’s death reflects the real life Daniel Pearl tragedy, although Henkin has stated in interviews that the connection was not intentional.
The book isn’t so much about Leo’s murder, but how the family members go about their various ways of dealing with the loss. Henkin has stated (including this great quote from an engrossing Rumpus interview) that the tale was inspired by a very personal experience.
I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. At a family reunion nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons….” Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World Without You grew.
The official timeline of the novel focuses on the Frankels gathering for the one year memorial of Leo’s death. It’s just a couple of days. But Henkin’s skill is displayed as he deftly packs years of family history into such a short “real time” period. As each family member is introduced, Henkin moves backward to introduce us to the character’s personality and past experiences. These shifts are seamless, gentle, and feel very nature.
Joshua Henkin’s last novel, Matrimony, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and The World Without You is certainly well-positioned and deserving of similar accolades.