Monday, June 3, 2024

Book Review: A Mourning Coat by Alex Jeffers

Is it about fashion or is it about finding yourself once again, after a period of grief? Why not both?

What do we mean when we say "low stakes"? I always struggle with this as a descriptor, because, well... it's all relative, right? My instinct in how to describe A Mourning Coat is, at first, to reach for the term, because nothing world-shattering happens. There's no intergalactic war. The realm isn't saved by feats of derring-do. The entirety of scientific understanding is not overthrown by new discoveries. And yet... after a long period of illness, the protagonist's father has just died. A world has been shattered. How can we say that the death of a parent is low stakes, when the deaths of those closest to us are the highest stakes many of us will ever truly face?

Of A Mourning Coat, let us instead say that the stakes it handles are realistic ones, the problems it handles familiar. The scale is small, even if the emotional impact is not. And these are the stories I really want, when people talk about low stakes, or slice of life—I want the stories whose view is pulled in so tight that you are, however briefly, fully inhabiting a person's perspective on their problems. I want to think, feel and breathe them, be immersed in them, for the duration. I want to close the last page, exhale, and feel, fleetingly, ephemerally, a person changed by this inhabitation of a new perspective, in a way that comes so much more bittersweetly when there's nothing else to pull you away, no distraction of hurrying action and plot. I want poignancy and human connection in my slice of life. I got it here, in crisp perfection.

There used to be an atelier, until his father —his famous father the actor, much acclaimed and renowned— fell ill, succumbing to early dementia and increasingly in need of care. So Therre moved back into his childhood home, went through a messy breakup, and spent five years of his life watching his father decline and doing everything he could to support him. His father has now died, and Therre is alone in this empty house, full of the grief of memory, and without the daily structure of a life well lived to return to. He needs something to wear to the funeral, something appropriate to mourning, to honour the father he loved, who became the father he struggled to love, and their heritage and himself. And so he reaches back to the person he was, the creator of fashion and elaborate garments, to make himself a mourning coat, white on the outside as is proper, but lined with an embroidered, colourful wool his ailing father had loved to touch. He crafts himself a statement about who he is, was, loves and possibly hopes to be, and wears it, struggling, to a funeral. And somehow, the coat changes everything.

Well, for a given definition of "everything." It's that matter of scope again—we are so used to fantasy stories that encompass worlds, multiverses, galaxies, empires, so we begin to expect that vastness in all descriptions. But here, everything is simply Therre's world, Therre's life. As if a single life can be simple.

The scope of the story is the beginning of Therre's journey away from this grief, this life apart from the world and back into community. It is only the beginning, because it is a story that understands that grief is not easily surmounted, and that the problems between people —between, for instance, estranged siblings— are not solved overnight by grand gestures. It's a story of living through the seeds of change, with an ending of hope for what's to come, a beginning of the next step. So it is a story of transition, from one phase of life to another, encompassing the period of the shift and nothing more. Jeffers does what the best novellas do, and narrowed his scope into what can be meaningfully explored in the space he has—excise the need for the three-act structure, the need for intricate worldbuilding, the need for a wide-reaching explanation, and focus down into what matters for the story. Here it's immersion in a perspective, being able to see the world truly through Therre's eyes, particularly facilitated by the physical world —texture, especially, the feeling of cloth, and its colour and drape— and a distinctive, immediate internal monologue that gives shape to an individual you grasp immediately and love soon after.

If I had to focus on one thing the novella does well, it would be that: the tone. Therre is a delightful narrator to inhabit. He mixes awkward authenticity and self-doubt with a dry, self-effacing humour that makes me immediately want to listen to him more. There is a wryness to how he thinks to himself that I cannot help but smile at, like so:

The straightforward happenstance of a sex dream wasn't especially novel, and I had besides, simply as a health measure during five stressful years in my father's house, regularly exercised my hand and as necessary the sort of visual entertainment not spoken of in company.

or later, when spectacularly failing to take a compliment:

It's not especially memorable, I don't think. Just a prick. Most men have them. Some people who aren't men.

He talks around things in a way I find charming rather than contrived—it makes you think he's laughing at himself rather than putting on airs. This is someone who knows how he sounds, and wants the listener to be in on the joke with him.

Much of the writing is situated within Therre's internal monologue and perspective (aided by his occasionally interesting language choices—I was delighted to see the use of "cossie" for swimming costume, which I had always assumed was incredibly British, and fully made sense with his Scottish-seeming birth country) and so the whole story feels suffused with him as a personality—we feel, through his words, his sadness and confusion, how adrift he feels in the life that has lost the star around which he orbited for five years, but also the man he was and can be again, who charms and delights. It's never spelled out, never said, but it comes through nonetheless, especially when reflected off the people around him.

Because that's the other thing Jeffers has done well—created authentic-feeling fellowship between Therre and those in his life, however unusual the relationships. He has a sister, back in the homeland he and his father left behind, who has her own hurts over her place in her family, but with whom he begins to slowly reconnect, and develop a relationship as adults. He has an old acquaintance who may grow to be something more, who sees what he needs and tries to help him find it. But he also has Aìbi, the ex with whom he had a messy breakup once his father's needs began to take over his life, whom he once loved, who is now married, and with whom he shares these lines:

I swallowed. "I love you, Aìbi. I never deserved you."

"You didn't, but we loved each other for a while and had a good go at it, and now we love each other differently."

And they do. We watch a new relationship rise from the ashes of the old. Not a perfect one, not without faults and stumbles on both sides, but something Therre can grasp, a hand to help pull him free of where he is now. Jeffers understands how to portray people with a long history, the fellowship of people who really know each other, through the good and the bad, but are still here anyway, and even more than the flirting (which is delightful) and the complexity of family (tentative and brittle but so hopeful), it is this relationship that draws me in, simply because it's a rare one to see, and doubly so to see done so well.

I should, I suppose, also touch on how this fits into SFF—you'd be forgiven for taking what I've said so far as implication that it's social realism or something similar, after all. The story is set in another world from ours, one I would describe in the same vein as Guy Gavriel Kay's "quarter turn to the fantastical"—there are elements of the supernatural hinted at, and distinct differences from our world (even beyond the naming of places and things), but those elements are predominantly hinted at rather than shoved into your face, and even where they appear most prominently, they are never the full focus of the story. The how of them? Irrelevant. It's not a story about the fantastical, just one that employs it to get its point across, to play about with things and craft a space that makes a story —this story, and others— work.

When not relegated to the background, it comes across in its own little wry excerpts, for example this, from an in-world text about gender in fashion:

Binding up a man's swinging parts in trousers as those barbarous folks did went against nature, science, logic and common sense [...] whilst the drafty openness of skirts must be similarly unhealthful for a woman.

Which comes into our awareness briefly, serves its purposes for the plot and our understanding of the shape and texture of the world, and then flits off again, its work done. I often find stories with this kind of simple inversion clumsy —the way The Power handles its power imbalance springs to mind most prominently— but here, the fact we do not dwell on it serves it well. It's not the underpinning of the whole purpose of things; it's not a grand statement. It's just "oh, by the way," and then we move on, we don't overthink it, which is where so many fall down. But such statements don't need to stand up to intensive scrutiny if they don't overstay their welcome.

Likewise, we watch Therre develop a new interest in what he calls "counterfactual fiction" or "CFF"—the SFF of its own worlds. Jeffers holds up a brief but delightful mirror to the sort of shows I grew up loving —space opera with dramatic nonsense and excellent content mixed up in equal measure— and even in that short space, we see a familiar fondness shine through even across the difference of a made-up world. Not everything has to be an inversion, and that makes the bits that are changed matter all the more. Different... but also the same. It's also just quite fun watching him go from ignorant dismissal of the genre to genuine interest, via the medium of a hot actor playing a part well. I cannot call him wholly unrelatable in that, let us say.

But that is somewhat the extent of the fantastic in the story —a different world with different geography and history, different mores, different stories— for approximately 85% of the book. There are some points that stray further when critical to the plot, but for the rest of the time, it takes a back seat and lets us focus on Therre and his world, and the people around him, and it is that I am delighted by the most.

It's what sings out the most, too. It's a story about a person and his grief, and one told with gentleness, sympathy and deep humanity. It is about connection, about living, and about the tethers on your soul that you will never shift, but maybe learn to live around. It is beautiful, sad and desperately poignant, and I loved it.

The Math

Highlights: beautiful, personal tone of voice; wonderful descriptions of the physical (especially fabric); subtle understanding of grief and love

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

Reference: Jeffers, Alex. A Mourning Coat [Neon Hemlock, 2024].

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.