In the final few pages of The Red of My Blood, Clover Stroud’s latest book, the author reveals how she wrote it: “I drove south, into Wiltshire, to stay at a friend’s empty house for two nights, alone. I needed to write down all these words for you. I needed to write all this down because I wanted to share with you the things that have happened in the time since my sister’s death and the difficult, precious experiences I have lived through.” For the preceding 250 pages, Stroud has allowed the reader into her brain, her heart, her bed. When she deploys that “you”, it is like she has reached out a hand and grasped you by the shoulder.
This is why Stroud’s writing is so enthralling: she holds nothing back. She is an author who plunges deep into life’s most ordinary yet elusive matters: trauma, motherhood, and, with The Red of My Blood, death and loss. She wrote this book – her third, memoirs all – six months after her sister Nell died from cancer, a cruel and premature twist after years of living with the disease. “She was admitted to hospital with a suspected small blood clot on her lung. She was expected to stay in for a week”, the prologue reads. Within days, “her blood results showed she had advanced liver failure. She died at 4.20pm on 8 December 2019. She was two years old than me and forty-six years old.”
From this stark opening, The Red of My Blood hurtles the reader into the discombobulation of grief. Stroud takes us through the nuts and bolts of loss: the death certificates and house clearances; the white noise of loss; the sheer, immobilising grip of trying to continue to live when someone you love has died. She chases suicidal thoughts and family memories, delves into hot fury and blank nothingness. She describes what her sister’s body looks like – “she was golden. She was like a god” – and what it is to stumble upon a message from her on the internet only to realise she never replied. In the words of Lisa Taddeo, this is “a gutting masterpiece of a book”.
“Some people have been saying they can only read two pages at a time,” she tells me over the phone, releasing a glug of laughter. “A big motivating thing of writing it was wanting to understand what the fuck that feeling was, you know. The incredible sadness of losing big bits of life that matter massively to you.”
That feeling appears in all kinds of ways over the course of the year charted in Stroud’s book. It comes in colours (the petrol blue of a bird wing, in the first raw despair after Nell’s death) and quests (to find her sister in the stars, to find a new pony). Months after Nell dies, the pandemic sets in and the claustrophobia of Stroud’s grief is compounded as the nation locks down. Within the tight limits of her home, she manages to take us on a sprawling and unexpected journey through her bereavement.
“We are all as human beings, in our internal lives, living through these vast landscapes of adventure and terror and beauty,” she says. “I’m trying to understand that you don’t have to be out in the world or doing a fabulous job to have extraordinary human experiences every day. Once you can kind of access some of that adventure, then the difficult process of being a human being gets more interesting.”
We talk about how books treat grief. With a handful of notable exceptions – C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking among them, both of which Stroud read while writing – there are few titles that attempt to grapple so bodily with what happens after someone dies. “I was trying to write the book that I wanted to read,” Stroud says, “without it being another book about grieving and how to come to terms with it. I wanted it to feel as if the reader was literally out in the fields or in the kitchen or lying on my bed with me, and I was telling them what was happening. That connection with the reader is really important, because what's the point of going through all this pain but to try and pass on some consolation?”
In the aftermath of Nell’s death, Stroud begins to cling to the imagery of much older stories: of knights and forests. She sits with her youngest sons and reads from Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table because, she writes in the book, “there was something eternal, and also brave” in these tales. As the year turns, Stroud continues to return to this iconography, referencing Galahad and Gawain, she finds strength and solace in three “midnight-black” horses that wander into her garden. Faced with the surrealness of grief, her life takes on a mythic quality, as if the struggle to survive without her sister is a quest of legendary weight.
“The biggest inspiration was reading ancient poetry,” she tells me. “Gilgamesh is probably the best kind of grief literature to read: going back to the really old texts, there’s so much beauty in them. You find yourself in somebody's experience from hundreds of years ago, and that enables you to look forward a bit more as well.”
It’s difficult not to feel that The Red of My Blood has arrived at a pertinent time. Two years after the beginning of a pandemic, and war has erupted in Europe. Everybody has been managing some kind of grief, now, for months. In her book, Stroud is unabashed about how isolating the typical reaction to another’s grief can be – particularly when people say they can’t understand how the bereaved are feeling. “You immediately push the bereaved person into a lonely place,” she says, simply. “And grief is so lonely. You are alone on a path through the forest, and it’s scary.”
I ask what we can say to bring comfort, instead. “Enable somebody who’s lost somebody to talk about that person, or make a joke about him,” she says. “I think one of the nicest things is asking what he was like, what did you enjoy doing with him? It’s actually really nice just talking about a green jumper,” she posits, “or the time the car broke down, or a walk that was particularly muddy.”
The Red of My Blood is a book about absence, but Stroud paints a portrait of her sister on the page – a being caught between vivid life and shattering death, someone who used emojis, made potatoes in cardamom cream and spent her money on designer clothes, but who only speaks in memory. Stroud doesn’t name her, preferring to use the term “my sister” until the very end of the book.
“I didn’t feel the glitter of joyful memory,” she says. “But also I wanted the book to be picked up whether you’d lost your sister or your dad or your best friend or your child, rather than my personal account of something. I wanted Nell to be as slippery and elusive as she was to me; that I was living, but she was constantly vanishing. She’s always moving forward, and I’m always trying to find her.”
With time, Stroud learned to stop looking for her sister – not in the stars, not in passing rabbits or the warm breath of a horse’s muzzle. It was then that she found a new kind of certainty after so many months of questioning; it was then that she wrote her story. The creativity that emerged, she tells me, “is one of the few consolations of Nell having died”: it has shown her how to live more brightly.
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