Grief, especially that which blooms from the death of a loved one, can lend itself well to broad, cinematic representations. Its universal complexity provides fertile ground for worthwhile existential musing, but also begs to be exploited, or, at the very least, dramatized. Deborah Robertson’s debut novel, Careless, brushes up against such indulgence with its Crash-esque parade of circumstantially connected characters, but Robertson ultimately maintains enough control of her story to keep the novel’s deeper concerns in sharp focus; she fosters introspection without miring the reader in a turgid pond of sadness and sentimentality.
A tragedy at a kid’s summer camp loosely but definitively links the subtly wrought characters of Careless. Robertson uses this event as a point from which to analyze grief on an individual scale. Pearl, a young, borderline obsessive-compulsive girl, copes with the loss of her younger brother, while her mother projects her own grief onto a new boyfriend. Adam, a struggling artist, attempts to tap into the events around him to create a design for a public memorial for lost children. Sonia endures her empty house after the death of her husband, and Anna tries to keep her daughter’s memory alive by counseling others who have lost family members.
As a result, perhaps, of housing so many characters, Careless lacks a clear, leading voice, and transitions among different points of view, especially those in the early parts of the novel, can be disorienting. Ultimately, though, Robertson weaves together her strings of narrative just enough to present an absorbing study of the internalization of public grief, and the work that such grief performs upon individuals and their feelings about their own futures. In this regard, Careless’s final chapter shines, though it focuses on two brothers who do not play any direct part in any other section of the book. As the future both narrows and widens for these characters in response to events that unfold around them, the present becomes a holding cell, a staging ground for the unknown steps they will have to take to regain their balance. This individual balancing act provides the heart of Robertson’s story. It, not grander illustrations of tragedy or grief, grips the reader and compels introspection.