In Justine Picardie’s memoir of her agonised year following the death of her sister Ruth, If The Spirit Moves You, she writes of her many frenzied attempts to make contact with her spirit. One night, her yearning drives her to write Ruth an email, making up addresses for her in the realm of the afterlife she so wanted to believe her sister lived in. In Everything Happens for a Reason, Allen’s narrator Rachel also writes emails to her dead loved one: her baby son Luke, who died shortly before his birth without any medical reason given – a brutal truth for many parents whose babies die at, or before, birth.
Through Rachel’s frequent digital missives to her baby Luke – sometimes a few a day – we learn how she navigates the fraught, disenfranchised, and achingly large map of her grief. Her husband buries himself in work, her best friend lets her down by cancelling a trip to attend Luke’s funeral and her self-consumed mother prefers to smooth over rough edges with religion and general avoidance of ‘the topic’. Rachel is even expected to attend her sister-in-law Maggie’s baby shower, which is partly mitigated by the presence of one friend who realises the horror show Rachel finds herself in. The fact that Maggie is a doctor isn’t lost on me either – even medics get the experience of stillbirth terribly wrong.
Early on, Rachel’s mother throws out the comment that ‘everything happens for a reason’. As minds imploded by grief are prone to do, Rachel’s makes a connection between her son’s death and the day she found out she was pregnant, when she prevented a young man from throwing himself onto the tube tracks at Oval station. In saving his life, she ultimately sacrificed her baby’s – or so her magical thinking suggests. Rachel determines to track him down and is helped by Lola who works at Oval and soon becomes a firm friend, so much so that Rachel ends up caring for, and bonding with, her daughter Josephine.
Rachel tracks down the suicidal man – ‘Ben’, an enigmatic dog walker – and she desperately pursues a friendship with him, and even co-opts him into setting up a new ‘grief service’ business with him. Together, they will make the experience of a death of a loved one easier to bear and reluctantly, he agrees. While she fleshes out their plans, her bond with Josephine deepens but that with Ben unravels when his true identity emerges – and the annihilating power of public shaming does too.
It’s not an easy task to balance tragedy and humour well, but Allen not only strikes this tricky note but maintains it evenly throughout her story. For a book about death and isolation, it’s also about life, and of the importance of human – and animal – connections.