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This Physical Life

Kent Haruf
Our Souls at Night
(Knopf, 2015)

In the opening pages of Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf’s quietly breathtaking final novel, published earlier this year, Addie Moore, an old widow, visits her neighbor Louis Waters, also widowed, and asks him if he will consider sharing her bed with her at night.

No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

And so begins their relationship. Like the book, their relationship is subtle—Louis brings his pajamas and a toothbrush in a small paper bag and every evening they have a drink and then they get into bed side by side and talk and sleep. They do the things those of us who have partners do every night and those of us too young to have partners, or not interested in having a partner, rarely, if ever, crave. (No, not sex.)

But unlike a young romance or friendship—I remain happily uncertain which term to use for them—at their age (seventy for her, something similar for him), death is everywhere. Both of their spouses have died, friends have died, other loved ones have died; they themselves are at an age when death would not be considered tragic. They inhabit that place where death and life play with each other, making each day vibrate. Of course, we are all always balancing life and death, but death becomes much more urgent at a certain point in all of our lives and that is the point at which both Addie and Louis are living and interacting.

As you get older, life starts to empty out—long after your parents and teachers have died, spouses start to die, friends, neighbors, co-workers start to die and while, yes, new generations play a role (as they do in this book), it isn’t quite the same. Younger generations have their own lives and their own worlds in which the elderly are extras. As you age, there is more space in your world. And that means, in a way, that there is more possibility to fill your world. And that is exactly what Louis and Addie do with each other.

They fill their emptying lives with each other. They talk about themselves and their pasts and their mistakes and their regrets, but this is not a book that gets bogged down by personal revelations or musings. The past has happened. The simple, tangible daily world becomes exquisite for them, and for us. With death everywhere, life really comes alive. Addie says, “I do love this physical world. I love this physical life with you. And the air and the country. The backyard, the gravel in the back alley. The grass. The cool nights. Lying in bed talking with you in the dark.” And one night:

They lay next to each other and listened to the rain.

So life hasn’t turned out right for either of us, not the way we expected, he said.

Except it feels good now, at this moment.

Their relationship and this entire book is about contrast—life not existing without death, joy not existing without sadness. Age-old truths that we tell ourselves, usually only when faced with death or sadness. This too shall pass. But that’s true of both joy and life as well.

The language is simple and bare, but everything pulsates. Going for hamburgers, going camping, going to a softball game, the theatre—the quotidian becomes worthy of notice and praise.

I read this entire book in one evening. When it ended, I wasn’t happy or sad but I was aware of the small wonder of turning off the light and pulling the sheet up to my chin. I was aware of the streetlight illuminating the edges of my blinds and I felt the bed under me in a way I never have before. What a beautiful feeling to be left with after a book: the feeling of life—which, you immediately realize, comes holding the hand of the feeling of death. To be alive is to not be dead.


Diksha Basu

DIKSHA BASU is a writer and actor who divides her time between New York City and Mumbai. Find her: @dikshabasu.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2015

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