This Side of Sad by Karen Smythe
Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
This Side of Sad is a story that examines love and loss. Maslen’s husband James has just died, and as the book starts, she is in the process of willing herself to look back on her life and experience her memories. These entail memories from her life with James, and also memories of the other two men she loved, Josh and Ted, as well as her survival of cancer.
The novel incorporates the past and the present, moving from her memories of different instances of her life to the current time when she’s struggling to cope with the death of her husband. It explores Maslen’s grief and love, and how she’s still trying to come to terms and make sense of it all.
Smythe’s writing is crisp, compassionate, and unapologetic. At over 300 pages, the book can at times feel rather dense, but the prose is captivating enough to always draw in the reader. The writing does an excellent job of delving into the details and emotions of human relationships, which then creates the space for an understanding of the importance of such small instances in a person’s life.
At certain moments, the book seems almost like an act of voyeurism, as the reader is invited into moments of incredible intimacy and grief. This is exacerbated by the use of the first person, which brings a further level of immediacy to the story, and allows the reader to enter Maslen’s world without restraint.
The book also holds suspense, as certain details of Maslen’s life, as well as the lives of the men in her life, are held back throughout parts of the story. This is possible because of the way the novel goes back and forth with time, which serves the book well, as it allows for important details to be held back until pivotal moments of the story. As a result, the story cultivates a kind of running curiosity about its characters.
Though This Side of Sad is centred on Maslen’s recollections of the three men she’s loved, the focus on them makes it so that the reader is never really able to see Maslen for herself. Since she’s only explored through her relationships with others, there’s a certain element of incompleteness to her: she’s never really seen on her own. This can be understood to be part of the story itself, that Maslen’s love and grief are so all-consuming that she no longer exists without them and can only understand the present through the past; however, this seems to pass up the opportunity to understand who she is at a greater depth.
Despite this, This Side of Sad is unique because it opens up the space to explore a woman’s incredibly complex emotional world. It is bold in the ways in delves into Maslen’s deepest intimacies and offers the opportunity to understand the ways in which people are defined by their relationships. This Side of Sad is published by Goose Lane Editions.