Reviewed by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-67)
The idea behind The Grievers’ Group is intrinsically interesting — a therapy group of five strangers who have recently lost a spouse facilitated by a quirky therapist, Pórdís Jakobsdōttir, whose only college “degree” is an honorary one from Chokkold Institute in Iceland. She conducts the therapy sessions in her simply furnished living room dominated by the imposing image of her mentor Josefine Christophersen-Hemmingsen which gives Pórdis comfort and the appearance of legitimacy. The picture never speaks, but her looming image affects everybody, especially her mentee.
The story unfolds like many tales of strangers grouped together at random with some surprising twists especially when the reader learns early on that relatives of two of the grievers, Cornelius’ 14-year-old granddaughter Phoebe and LaVeronica’s son, Dwayne, also 14, are intimately involved. Everybody’s story unfolds in the course of the book, but Cornelius is the main character, on stage in most scenes, and the person the reader gets to know the best.
I expected to learn a bit about each of the character’s losses, and, perhaps gain some insight on how one experiences, learns from, and moves on from the loss of a beloved partner. I did learn quite a bit about Cornelius beloved wife Yuki, and his constant, painful reminders of her, and a few similar details from each of the others. The characters take turns being “up” in their meetings, and their stories are certainly interesting, but there isn’t much insight or therapy offered.
Wiley is a gifted storyteller, so I was disappointed that LaVeronica, the only Black member of the group, was convicted of manslaughter for shooting and killing her longtime boyfriend. If that detail was necessary to the story, couldn’t it have been a white character? Not only was LaVeronica’s grief of the loss of a person she had killed an unnecessary sidebar that we never learn much about, the prosecuting attorney was Cornelius’ son-in-law, so from LaVeronica’s point of view there was tension between her and Cornelius even before the coupling of her son with his granddaughter. (LaVeronica was acquitted of manslaughter.)
The hook, and interest in The Grievers’ Group is the forced proximity of the characters, what they learn about themselves and each other, and Wiley carries that off in the first two-thirds of the book. The last third focuses on the complicated entanglement of the two 14-year-olds which is resolved, kind of, seven pages before the end. By then the original grievers’ group is diminished and in the last five pages of the book, Wiley introduces Bert and Betty, replacements for 2 who have left, in a stilted first grievers’ group gathering over the internet. The reader becomes as distracted as the grievers, one eating pretzels, another glad the group can’t tell she is naked from the waist down, Cornelius talking to his granddaughter, even therapist Pórdís paging through a book, Fables for Therapeutic Situations, thinking about how what she learns there might apply to her clients, and in the next sentence, “Cornelius logged off in a way he hoped would make the others think he was having technical difficulties….” I know how he felt.
The work of reviewer Kathleen Coskran, writer and teacher, has appeared in several anthologies and her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous awards, fellowships and residencies including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bush Artist’s Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
While primarily a fiction writer she is currently working on a book about the lack of justice in the multiple criminal justice systems in the United States, based on her 25-year friendship with James Colvin, who has been incarcerated for nearly 50 years.