Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Humphreys' Nocturne

Nocturne / Helen Humphreys
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2013.
224 p.

I seem to have read a streak of memoirs lately, unusual for me. It started with this one, by an author whom I really admire. Humphreys lost her younger brother to pancreatic cancer, and this book is her response to her grief.

Her brother was a concert pianist and composer, and the two of them were very close. The format of the book is a series of letters she is writing to him, describing their shared memories and telling him of her experience after his loss. It covers family history, discussions about art, unanswered questions between them, the idea of memory, and other themes.

It was beautifully written, in Humphreys' usual spare but poetic style. There were sentences that stood out and particularly caught my attention, such as:

Everything holds memory. A house will remember a person after he's gone by the slight sway in the floorboards in the front room at the window where he used to stand for hours. It remembers the pot of geraniums on the back porch by the faded circle in the grey paint. We move through spaces that have held on to other lives and will learn the shape of ours, will hold on to the way we walk through rooms, how we touch what we touch. 


At the end, we are all far from home. We are far from home, and what we hope for is that someone will fashion us a light, so that we too will not have to wake in darkness.

I was touched by many of the stories, both personal and artistic, that Humphreys shares. But, at the same time, this book felt unbearably intimate, as if in reading it I was trangressing a very private relationship. The grief, the directed communication that the letter format allowed, all made me feel a bit like an eavesdropper. While I appreciate the skill of Humphreys as a writer, and the unbearable experience of grief that she is expressing, I felt that it was somehow too personal. There were moments when the words spoke to a wider world, but so much of the writing is so much for her brother and for their lost relationship that I felt like a nosy parker reading it.

However, that may be my own response alone, and yours may be totally different. So if you have read this, or plan to, please share your thoughts. It is a beautifully made book and if you are interested in this kind of read, it may be right for you.


  1. Replies
    1. I think you'll appreciate it - a few more interesting ones to come this week too

  2. The writing of Humphreys is so amazing. I love the sentences you chose...those alone make me want to read this book. Thanks for another great review.

    1. The writing is truly beautiful. It's a really moving book.


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