A short story I recently read

‘Bottles of Grief’ by Eva Shelton

This story is one of the winners of The Insider Prize 2021. You can read it here (scroll down) in about 10 minutes.

Thinking about story focus and characterisation…

The narrator is attending a group grief counselling session. They (gender unknown) watch as the other attendees share their stories. Each attendee is given one paragraph – this keeps the focus on the other characters, and the narrator’s character is built up through their reactions to the grief of the others.

Ol’ Man Farmer talks about his daughter dying of cancer. He says ‘I lost her bit by bit’, and our narrator imagines this literally, with the daughter’s body parts vanishing one at a time. Our narrator’s sympathy seems to lie with the daughter, rather than the father, as they imagine her experiencing ‘the turbid feeling of not knowing where the bits of you were going.’

Jane Wilkins lost one son to war, and one to drugs. Or narrator tells us ‘People in town would whisper how one was a hero and the other was a piece of shit. I’m not sure which they thought was which’; this seems to be a comment on the nature of town gossip, and how it doesn’t tell the whole story, as the narrator’s knowledge of the two men contradicts the expected narrative of heroic solider and piece of shit junkie.

Sara’s husband of thirty-six years died of a sudden heart attack. Our narrator imagines, with emotionless clarity, this woman’s new, lonely world, and how she’ll probably follow her husband to the grave soon enough as her heart has ‘nothing left to beat for’.

Nancy’s sister is not dead, but in a coma. Here, we see the narrator’s anger; she resents Nancy’s presence, wants to scream at her to come back when her sister is actually dead. Her anger is because ‘Nancy can still dream, she can still apologize for whatever she needs to apologize for, she can still say I love you and hope one day the words are said back’, which suggests some of the guilt the narrator, and the others, feel.

Other attendees have lost their parents to murder-suicide, multiple unborn babies, and their entire family in political unrest in their home country.

The final paragraph is about the narrator’s grief. The author successfully uses narrative gaps here – who died, their relationship to the narrator, and how it happened, is not told to the reader, but it doesn’t matter, because the grief the narrator and other characters share is universal.

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