The lone child, standing on a rock some yards off the river’s shore, is in imminent danger, or so the dog believes. A great, galumphing part-Newfoundland named Ebie, she heads straight for the little girl.
As a possessor of caution and protectiveness, Ebie is almost alone in Belmont resident Leah Hager Cohen’s fluid and insightful fourth novel. “The Grief of Others’’ is peopled with characters who frequently lack the acuity to detect peril and the instinct to save themselves - or those they love - from it.
The girl is Biscuit Ryrie, a bookish, emotionally precocious 10-year-old growing up in New York’s Hudson River Valley. Skipping school, not for the first time, she’s in the midst of performing a somewhat jury-rigged funerary rite for her baby brother, Simon, who was born a year before and lived only a couple of days. Her main improvisation: using fireplace ashes instead of human remains.
The infant’s death hangs like a muffling shroud over the family: Biscuit (proper name, Elizabeth); her dazed and distracted parents, John and Ricky (proper name, Erica); and her 13-year-old brother, Paul, a once-popular kid who has become the self-loathing victim of bullying classmates. So scarcely acknowledged is their loss that they don’t speak the infant’s name, let alone recognize their need to mourn him. Even Biscuit performs her ritual in secret.
Much goes unsaid in the Ryries’s snug little house, and some of what is said isn’t true. John reels from the gut-punch revelation of Ricky’s deceptions during her pregnancy and afterward - a blow so devastating that it threatens their union. Ricky, on her commute home from work, is tempted daily to drive off the Tappan Zee Bridge into the water below. We are not sure, and Cohen means us not to be, whether we are watching the dissolution of a family or its slow and tender healing in the aftermath of terrible injury.
Into this trauma happen two outsiders, one a newly orphaned teenager named Gordie, the other John’s drifting, 23-year-old daughter, Jess, conceived when he was in college and raised far away by a mother adamant that he not be involved in her life. Jess, now pregnant herself, has met the Ryries only once before, eight years ago, during the summer when she formed an enduring notion of them as a golden family, and of John and Ricky as an idyllic couple.
She serves as a witness to what they once had. Gordie, mourning his father’s recent death and longing for the cocooning warmth of family, is a witness to the preciousness of what they still have, if only they would safeguard it.
“I mean, you know those stories where people go and fling themselves on top of the grave of the person who’s died and they never get up?’’ he asks. “They just lie in one spot and, I don’t know, freeze to death?’’
He is determined to keep moving, to stave off the frost, but it’s a while before Ricky and John feel just how deep the chill is.
Occasionally, the action of Cohen’s novel seems forced when it moves outside the family circle, particularly when John goes to his job managing the theatrical scene shop at a community college. Sometimes, too, in shifting the perspective from one character to another, Cohen lets her own voice intrude, breaking the spell she’s cast.
But those are quibbles about a novel that’s otherwise graceful, satisfying, and closely observed. “The Grief of Others’’ asks how we mourn, and how we move from absorbing loss to cherishing what remains.Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.