Most people who commit suicide are likely unaware of the despair their death provokes among members of their family. Some relatives guiltily blame themselves, thinking they could have done more to save that life, or blame other relatives, spouses, friends or uncaring physicians.
All of those problems unfold in the relentlessly grim new novel, Side by Side, by Ottawa author Anita Kushwaha. In the story, a 30-year-old Ottawa man, Sunil, deliberately overdoses on sleeping pills following many years of unsuccessfully trying to cope with mental illness. Left behind is his 25-year-old sister, Kivata, and their aging parents, who immigrated from India before the children were born.
Kivata was extremely close to Sunil. Her entire life is drenched in grief following her brother’s death. She feels guilty, believing that she could have done more to prevent the suicide. Kivata’s relationship with her husband, Nirav, suffers, because he fails to understand the depth of his wife’s grief. The parents of the two siblings had a shaky marriage for years. With the death of Sunil, the marriage collapses and their relationship with their daughter greatly suffers. Kivata becomes alienated from her best friend, Chi, and even starts deliberately harming herself with a lit cigarette, a glass shard, her own fingernails, provoking “that pain she knew she deserved.”
The story unfolds from Kivata’s point of view. But it is difficult at times to sympathize with her. She overreacts to situations. She holds grudges. A perceived slight from her in-laws regarding Sunil’s suicide threatens her marriage. Nothing else matters, it seems, but her and her obsessive grief.
In the end, Kivata finds her way, through the help of a bereavement discussion group. Think of the group as a grievers’ version of Alcoholics Anonymous, where the sharing of stories is liberating and healing.
This is Kushwaha’s second published work of fiction. The first was a 2015 novella, The Escape Artist, an intriguing tale about a lonely nine-year-old Indo-Canadian girl who bonds with her mentally disturbed aunt. Together, the two have exciting adventures – in their imagination. A surprise ending will leave you shaken but uplifted. Indeed, that ending and the superbly crafted two main characters resonate with readers long after the story is finished.
Side by Side, Kushwaha’s first published novel, is less impressive. The main character, Kivata, is seen only as a woman devastated by grief, on virtually every page. We know practically nothing else about this one-dimensional character beyond her grief. We need to know more – what are her goals in life, what are her interests, what was her marriage like before Sunil’s death? We only know her obsession with that death. That obsession evolves into selfishness and narcissism, and that is not enough to help readers truly care for her.
Side by Side does have strengths, namely the ability to portray the devasting effects of suicide on a family, not just on Kivata, in this case, but on her parents, husband and in-laws. Anyone contemplating suicide would be wise to read this book. It just might give that person second thought upon learning of the potential mayhem that can follow a self-inflicted death.
Side by Side (Inanna Publications)