The Writers We Lost Too Soon

by Tee Tate

Gina Berriault

In his foreword to The Tea Ceremony, the posthumous collection of Gina Berriault, Leonard Gardner, her longtime companion, wrote: “It is said of Gina’s stories that ‘the light she casts into the inner recesses of apparently ordinary people makes one feel that there is no such thing as an ordinary person.'” And indeed, few writers working today portray the “ordinary” in the same way. William Trevor, with his spare, precise prose is kindred in this way, so is Edna O’Brien. Like O’Brien, her portrayals often hinge on fragility, and like Trevor, there is clarity and weight in the physical world her characters inhabit. But Berriault’s territory was uniquely hers.

She died in 1999 following a brief illness, but up until her final days, wrote stories set in an off-center world that often revolved around the marginalized, the elderly, the ill. Sometimes her characters were simply those that see depth where others don’t. I often wonder what her fictional world, which predated the stunning changes and global conversations brought by the web, would have been like had she lived beyond the age of seventy-three. Her fictional milieu relied on the secret corners that exist far from this exposed world—but then, I suspect she would have been completely unaffected by it.

On the landing, she finished reading the letter by the light from the evening sky and then it seemed that the same light, the same hour lay over the entire world, just as it had seemed on those summer evenings when she had taken the deepening blue as a promise that someday she would find herself far away from the stucco bungalow. For a moment now the earth was hers to know, even as it was known to everyone to whom the ear with all its wonders appeared to belong. A child out in the world can do that for you, can bring you to belong in the world yourself. With the key in the lock, with her hand on the key, she bowed her head against the door that she must open.

from The Lights of Earth (1984)

-Lauren Alwan

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