Review: The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert (re-read)

61K2p4MWMbL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: March 2008

>>Re-read: August 2014

That clichéd adolescent love affair with razor blades, the thinly veiled suicide threats. A handful of broken or non-existent condoms, semen of unworthy men who cared not at all for her absorbed into her body, microscopic invaders. (Cervical cancer would’ve at least made some sense! But brain? What the fuck?)

And what about people who wouldn’t let you hold their babies, who gave excuses about germs or attachment or whatever?

Locking eyes with homeless people and then giving them no change, none at all.

Reading in the paper about a schoolteacher in China who’d raped dozens of fourth- and fifth-grade girls. The sexual violence in the Sudan, blamed on its victims. A teenaged mother in Queens who had purposefully murdered her infant daughter by putting her in the microwave. To live in a world where such things were possible. All of it storm clouds gathering, gaining force, threatening claps of thunder amassing energy for the devastating downpour of this.

***

Dahlia Finger is dying. More to the point, she will be dead by the end of this novel. It’s not much of a spoiler to say so, given that the crux of the book, the reason for her journey, is the discovery, following a grand mal seizure at the end of the first chapter, of an inoperable brain tumour in her head.

So yeah, Dahlia Finger is dying, and Elisa Albert’s The Book of Dahlia is her swan song to the world.

While one might think that this is a recipe for a rather glum, solemn read, Albert’s titular heroine, like the book itself, is far from expected. As a matter of fact, at the novel’s start Dahlia is downright obnoxious. At first blush she appears to be little more than an entitled underachiever, spending her days getting high, eating Cheerios, and watching A League of Their Own for the umpteenth time in her Venice, California home, paid for by her dear, doting father, Bruce. Her ambitions seem, at best, minimal; the distaste she has for the world around her is evident from the very beginning. What isn’t immediately clear, however, are her reasons for the disaffection and vitriol she so effortlessly spews.

The Book of Dahlia is split between two lives: there’s the Dahlia of the past and the slow reveal of how she got to be the hardened self of her mid-to-late twenties (by way of her distant, globe-trotting mother Margalit and her utter piece of shit brother Danny, both responsible for casting Dahlia out of their lives through sheer selfishness and a lack of empathy or interest in her wellbeing); and there’s the Dahlia of the present, dying from cancer, taking stock of the life she’s led and what little future she has left. The novel marries these two narratives by loosely structuring itself as a self-help/cancer-for-dummies-style book, with each chapter titled for another step in the chain toward “beating” the beast (or, at the very least, accepting that the beast has beaten you).

Albert’s book is a bit of a wonder: Dahlia is, at first, a distasteful, fairly unlikable human being. She’s abrasive and seemingly uninterested in the lives of others. But by the novel’s end—hell, by its midpoint—we are given enough familial evidence to see that her present persona is not natural but crafted, unintentionally, by the spite and self-centred behaviour of her mother and brother (seriously, fuck Danny… arrogant, abusive piece of shit deserves to suffer with the knowledge that nothing in his life warrants his sister’s forgiveness). Though Dahlia has gone through life with the ever-present comfort of her father’s unwavering love and financial support, it does not preclude her from having suffered deep emotional scarring at the hands of the rest of her family.

Like all self-help books, The Book of Dahlia preaches the qualities of forgiveness and finding strength in oneself; however, Dahlia’s forgiveness is reserved for herself, for accepting the ways she’s stalled or fucked up or lost focus throughout her journey, and understanding that forgiveness should not always be given if, in fact, it is only being gifted to satisfy the guilt of another party. Her strength comes from her anger—from accepting the treatment she received at the hands of Danny and Margalit as being their problem, and not hers. This runs contrary to the advice she receives from her doctor and other cancer patients/survivors, who encourage the forgiving of others as a way of relieving the soul and body of unnecessary strain. But then Dahlia is not just anyone, and for better or worse she’s used all her external stores of forgiveness already, trying to explain away her family’s faults for years before finally accepting them as the shitty people they really are (except, of course, for daddy Bruce). It’s strangely beautiful that, in the end, she uses what remaining forgiveness she has for herself—her strength is not in forgiving the failings of others, but forgiving herself for how she let them wear her down.

Like Dahlia herself, Albert’s writing is acerbic—witty, loaded with pop culture references, and at times overwhelmingly abrasive. She writes from a third-person limited perspective, regularly flitting into Dahlia’s head while maintaining a degree of distance through which all others are observed—we never really know why Danny was such a tool, though it’s not really important, as what matters is the legacy his actions left on Dahlia’s psyche. Albert frequently diverges with parenthetical asides often acting as comedic breaks or moments of blunt realization. However, it’s her employment of deliberate repetition of words and phrases that is most effective—by the final paragraph, indeed the final two lines of the book, Dahlia/Albert’s penchant for repetition steps beyond the aesthetics of rhythm and structure and becomes something else altogether, something unexpectedly and emotionally crushing.

This is the second time I’ve read The Book of Dahlia. I first read the book back in 2009, about a year after its initial release, and have been surprised in recent years by how much it stuck with me. This year I’ve been making a point of revisiting certain titles I remember having a stronger than average impact. Perhaps there’s no higher praise I can give The Book of Dahlia than to say that even though I remembered, almost perfectly, the final few sentences of the book and how they came to pass, I still shuddered as I started the final chapter, as I crept slowly down that final page to those few words repeated over and over again—words I knew would kick me in the stomach just as hard as they had five years earlier.

And you know what? I was right.

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