I want to start by showing the cover image of The Gifts of the Body because it represents the feeling of the stories well, and the nudity is important. This is a slim collection of 163 pages, and within are 11 interconnected stories. In each is an unnamed narrator. I pictured him/her as the author Rebecca Brown, who was a home-care worker. Typically, when an author writes about such an intimate topic and he/she has done the work before, I immediately assume that the fiction is a good deal autobiographical. Should I assume that? Some literary theorists say yes, that the author’s life informs the work, and others say no, not at all. Regardless, a home-care worker sees people naked at their most vulnerable. The character in the stories will hold a person as he/she is dying.
The titles are all some type of gift: sweat, tears, mobility, death, etc. The narrator goes into the homes of people who are in their last stages of dying from AIDS, which sets the collection during the AIDS epidemic (it was published in 1994). Today, people can control the virus and live long lives. But remember that during the height of the epidemic, AIDS victims were the walking dead, shunned by a society that wasn’t sure how AIDS was transmitted. I had an older student last year who told me that in the 80s he wouldn’t even shake people’s hands — that’s how scared his community was.
The last step for people in The Gifts of the Body is hospice care, but just before that the narrator comes to their home to help with chores, meals, and bathing. He/she (it’s not clear) typically has a regular client, but as people die quickly, new clients are added frequently, and sometimes he/she must sub for another home-care worker who can’t make an appointment. The challenge is to see each patient as human, but not get too attached because they’re all going to die soon.
Rebecca Brown writes in the most pared down simple sentences I’ve seen in fiction in a long time. With a topic likes the AIDS epidemic, there’s no need to add anything extra. The “extra” might distract readers from what’s important: the people. Here’s an example from a man who is so close to death that he can’t really speak anymore:
Rick loved cats. He’d wanted to adopt one that was hanging around his place, but everyone said he could get sicker from the cat, but he said he didn’t care. But then he decided not to keep the cat and called everyone he knew till he found someone who could take it. He’d decided he didn’t want to keep the cat, then have it miss him and not have a dad after he died.
The language is basic. The sentence structure is simple and compound sentences, no more. But the emotion is so strong that I’m having a hard time writing about it. This really is a sad book, but one that reminded me that humans deserve dignity regardless of what their body is doing, what runs in their veins, the condition of their skin.
Though The Gifts of the Body is made up of individual stories, there is an overall shape. The narrator introduces us to different people in the early stories, transitions them to hospice care near the middle, and describes their deaths in the end. Only one person’s death is detailed, but the rest are labeled dead. I think it’s important to end with that one story in which readers get the details of what a person’s face and breath and eyes do in those last moments. It’s not lovely and it’s not like the movies, and it’s important. I cried in those moments because it’s so real, but the death scene is not sensationalized.
An important book that puts a face on the AIDS epidemic, including the victims, their families, and the people who cared for them. I don’t typically include an image of the author because I don’t think it matters, but I’m adding a picture of Brown below as a sort of acknowledgement of the work she did when very few would.
Image taken from her faculty bio page at the University of Washington-Bothell.