Few books that have come my way are both as heartfelt and as disturbing as Rosemary Nixon’s novel Kalila. The beauty of its stark and poetic construction is a stunning match for the raw honesty of its characters in dealing with one of life’s most painful subjects. A young Calgary couple, Maggie and Brodie, are the new parents of an premature baby girl born with a range of ailments — an enlarged heart, high blood pressure, malfunctioning lungs, an enlarged kidney. The infant lingers on in her isolette in the neonatal ICU — in a tangle of tubes and wires and distressing medical jargon — while her parents attempt to grasp what’s going on and to resume their lives as best they can.
For the most part, two points of view shape the story: Maggie’s first person voice is edgy, frightened and tender, suffused with both maternal instinct and irritation with the lack of clear answers (“I imagine myself one day fading toward the exit, melting out the sliding doors, vanishing to nothing. I feel it coming, my body, dissolving into light. Pretend you’re not here, I tell myself. They do.”). Brodie, who’s a physics teacher, tells his story in the second person. His use of “you” addresses the world — including both the comic relief of his mouthy students (“I heard Newton was gay!”) and the cosmos, evoked by Schrödinger and Einstein, which, for all its beauty, has given him this suffering child. Eventually, the couple decide to bring the baby home, drawing in family, doctors, further medical interventions and the conclusion, which you must read — and experience — for yourself.
Experience is at the core of this book. As readers, we live this story, and Nixon’s graceful truth-telling compels us to feel its beating heart inside our own. The couple’s suffering, juxtaposed against Brodie’s ruminations on the physical world offers us a moving glimpse into the age-old problem of evil, of the innocent who suffer. “A room full of babies who cannot see the stars,” says Brodie, arriving at the ICU from physics class. “You…peer down at the child breathing in great gulps, as if the air were uncertain, retreating from her. Einstein never accepted Schrödinger’s quantum mechanics. Einstein said God doesn’t play dice with the world.”
Hope and sorrow, panic and grief, a few spare, powerful words on the silence of a blank page speak to the human condition with the eloquence of Job. It’s significant that along with the well-meaning and sometimes saccharine consolations of religious faith offered the couple, the author includes the profound literary works of Hebrew scripture — the psalms, the great passion of Solomon’s song and the voice of Rachael, forever weeping for her children. Brodie implicitly understands their weight — along with the falsehood of trying to “redeem” such a tragedy — when he describes history as “no story with a beginning, middle, end. It is a string of simultaneous events, past leaking into future; the future into past.”
At the novel’s end, the reader understands why an unnamed narrator identifes Maggie and Brodie only as “the man” and “the woman.” The story is humankind’s, embracing some of our most grievous questions and sorrows. It’s a courageous piece of writing that concludes in poetry and silence.
It is an absolute must-read.
Kalila by Rosemary Nixon was published in 2011 by Goose Lane Editions in Fredricton, New Brunswick (Canada).