Elizabeth Alexander crafts an elegiac memoir and tribute to her late husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, in The Light of the World. In many ways their marriage was typical. First, they had a meet-cute, then some dating and relocating, then wedding and kids. Still, the relationship was precious beyond measure for the people within it. That’s what Alexander conveys here, and it works well for those outside that circle.
As a long-time wife, I can’t imagine how losing my husband to sudden death would feel. Alexander processes her varied emotions on the page, compiling memories along with those feelings. She tells the story of their life together, of their community, as well as their intimacies. Many moments feel incredibly raw and vulnerable. And yet, Alexander does find some distance which enhances the memoir’s readability.
Alexander is African American and Ficre was from Eritrea, a country in East Africa. She shares many things about his culture and its traditions. She also discusses how they melded their backgrounds, friends, and families into a cohesive and happy community.
Alexander’s writing is absolutely crafted. She is a poet and a professor, so she tells their story with lyrical language. There’s a lilt to her writing voice that lightens the heavy mood. And while some of that is her style, perhaps it’s also because of who Ficre was as a man. His unique character comes through so clearly.
My women’s book group read this and I appreciated discussing it with other long-time wives. One of us said, “Wow, this man could do no wrong. Is that even realistic?” And yes, Alexander has an overwhelming amount of positive stuff to say about Ficre. But she convinced me—he was clearly the perfect husband for her. And we all know how rare a gift that is.
The risk of reading a memoir about death is the possibility of depressing content. But Alexander manages a balance that worked for me. Although I put it down occasionally, it was more from emotional overwhelm than from sadness. Still, it’s life-affirming to celebrate a happy marriage, even if it ended too soon.
As I read, I often thought of Joan Didion’s excellent memory, The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s also a chronicle of a husband’s sudden death and how the wife copes. The two women experienced something similar, but their styles are quite different. The two books are a good pair, I think. As long the emotion of the topic is healthy for you.
The Light of the World is undoubtedly excellent. I recommend it for the writing and the depth of love it conveys.