"Looking backwards to our joyous life gone is just horrifying, dreadful.
"Imagining a future without Rosalie, equally horrific, terrifying...
"Your best memories are your biggest torments."
This exceptionally brave and impossibly eloquent book begins with Rosalie's favourite image, a scene from Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro.
"In a single night, the oak tree grows to full height from a scattering of acorns in the garden."
From seed to sapling to tree: this is the natural order of things.
Rosalie Lightning, Tom and Leela's daughter, died late November 2011 without warning, aged just under two. She barely reached 'sapling'.
Every parent prays that their children will outlive them: this is the natural order of things. It is so very natural that every parent could be forgiven for assuming it will be so. But within the space of few scant hours Tom went from a proud, loving Dad looking forward to spending his entire life watching his daughter grow up, to every parent's "worst case scenario".
This is such a harrowing read that I've multiple knots in my stomach merely typing this. It is grieving laid bare in all its desolate candour. It is forthright yet disciplined, immaculately structured and so well worded that one is tempted to quote from every page. You'll be seeing a great many trees, and it is surrounded by them that this memoir reaches such an extraordinary conclusion mere months later that one might even call it a climax. In poignant contrast Hart recalls how the three other stories featured within, which he shared with his daughter, conclude: the bird revived, the girl found, the girl freed.
That's not going to happen here. This isn't a fiction whose outcome can be controlled and adjusted to suit its creator's desires. And it's this very finality, its irreversibility, its cold hard fact which hit me so hard, even more so after the following:
"I do my best when I believe she is coming back."
How often do you awake from a nightmare to the relative relief of real life? Can you imagine having a dream in which all is idyllic then waking to a stark reality like this?
"What do you do when your child dies? ...You fall into a hole. ... My heart is a desperate, capacious hole."
So many sequences end in a gaping black hole. Others are glimpsed from within that black hole as if seen through a cerecloth. There's a recurring image of Tom and Leela portrayed as more familiar Tom Hart cartoon characters riding a patched-up rubber-ring boat, struggling through rapids, going swiftly nowhere. Water plays a big part throughout, from Ponyo By The Sea to Tom and Leela by the sea with Rosalie's ashes.
"Before we leave for New Mexico, I will pay for my daughter's cremation with an ATM card like I'm buying a bag of bananas."
So what do you do when your child dies? I don't speak from personal experience - I'm not even a parent - but this is what I learned from Tom Hart.
You end up "collecting" a lot of other stories of dead children. You can think about throwing yourself under a bus.
You look for signs and portents even in the weather in case they were warnings. In case behaviour held meaning, in case your child was trying to tell you something or knew something you didn't.
Everything takes on new meanings, new resonances: words, phrases, images, dreams, objects, songs.
Hart adopts some of Rosalie's favourite idioms into his own narrative, while thinking of all the words Rosalie never got to learn, all the experiences they never got to share both way in the future and just before she died. There's the cruelty of hindsight and missed opportunities; the frustration of a corn maze which Rosalie was so excited about but which was closed or about-to-close on two separate occasions after the family's arrival was delayed by disasters.
And then there's that cruelty with which "Your best memories are your biggest torments". Perhaps because of her love of Totoro, Rosalie collected acorns wherever she found them. Hart shows her foraging in full sunlight, picking up an acorn with her smooth and tiny little hand. It's immediately followed by Tom doing the same, then holding it at a distance with a grimace which signals utterly destroyed, almost disgust, his face scrubbed with the same black which enshrouds them while Leela is wide-eyed with everything.
Similarly when it comes to the moon which used to mesmerise Rosalie, Tom can't bear to look at it.
Obviously this isn't told in the same style as NEW HAT STORIES et al. Much of it is ragged and jagged and raw. There are a lot of close-ups of Leela and Tom very much alone together, Tom's hair scruffy, their faces leeched of all life. But there are also some powerful landscapes and beautiful, magical, triangular-leafed trees using Letratone - or a Letratone effect. I notice Eddie Campbell appeared first in Hart's inspirational thanks, so that makes sense.
As to its structure, it begins right at the nub of it all then pulls back to Tom and Leela's life in New York City before Rosalie was conceived, their escape back to Florida, their tough time selling their old flat (an early offer was made but you won't believe the mendacity and greed of the institutions who stymied the sale) and Rosalie's young life which is where the countdown begins. Time is running out because you know that she dies in late November. I guess that's what you also do when your child dies: everything recalled becomes your last this, your last that and the other.
Afterwards we follow Leela and Tom's first five weeks without Rosalie, when "Everything is a message. Everything beautiful is her" and you realise that you've no idea what strangers at an airport are going through because no one knows - to look at you - what you are enduring too.
In all honesty I don't know if I were a parent of a young child that I would want to read this. I've forbidden our Jonathan from doing so. But for those who have been left behind, I believe it will provide as much empathy as Anders Nilsen's DON'T GO WHERE I CAN'T FOLLOW and especially THE END which celebrate the life then document the death of his fiancée, and the gaping void which she left behind in her wake.
For those of us who aren't parents at all or have adult children, it can open up a whole new understanding. This, above all, caught me completely off guard.
"Three weeks ago - wasn't I a father?"