Grief has a way of distorting one’s perception of reality. When the brain registers loss, it is immediately catapulted into an arduous journey of mourning. Sometimes that journey takes years of hard contemplation, but it inevitably results in a clean outlook on life and a stronger callous to the many trials and tribulations that life has to offer.
In Kwame Dawes’ most recent novel, “Bivouac,” the University of Nebraska-Lincoln English professor paints a dreamlike picture of a man at war with himself in a country reeling from a stark political shift that has left many of its inhabitants on edge.
Set after the the political resurgence of the far-right in Jamaica circa 1980, the story begins with the sudden death of academic editorial writer George Ferron Morgan. His son, Ferron Morgan, is left grasping at the newly empty space in his life where his father once stood.
As Ferron and his family begin the long process of bereavement, talk of foul play being a factor in his father’s death begins to circulate among George’s colleagues and old friends. Despite the talk, Ferron struggles to ignore these conspiracy theories and focus more on himself and the tangled web of his decaying intrapersonal relationships that have suffered in the wake of his father’s death.
One of these relationships is with Ferron’s ex-fiancee, Dolores, who blames him for the devastating rape she had endured shortly after Ferron’s father passed away. Ferron’s guilt juxtaposed with his mourning demonstrates the inner turmoil of a man at odds with himself.
This narrative concept is made even more poignant by the sharp stomach pains and subtle depression that Ferron begins to experience. His only relief from the suffering comes in the form of the brash seductress Mitzie, who later becomes his lover and supporter.
As the story progresses, Ferron goes through the stages of grief in a disconnected stupor, where he chooses to repress his emotions through hedonism and dissociation. This causes Ferron to strain many relationships, including those with his brother and Mitzie.
With expressive description and languid cadence, Dawes deftly constructs a background that serves as an amorphous setting for the complicated experience of a grieving son.
However, with a vague and nuanced plot structure, “Bivouac” reads more like a long poem than a novel. The characters are two-dimensional and dreamlike, as if they only exist within Ferron’s mind. This trance-like cadence, accompanied by the intermediate time lapses into the unpublished academic notes of Ferron’s father, make for a ramshackled plot line that is confusing and sometimes jarring.
This being said, the plot’s elusive quality serves as a strangely sophisticated allusion to the effect that grief has on an individual’s life. When confronted with one’s own mortality through an immense loss, many become muted versions of themselves and the grief becomes a diluter within one’s reality and intrapersonal identity.
Overall, Dawes creates a novel that lacks plotline and characterization, but makes up for it with an in-depth poetic analysis of a complicated emotion all humans inevitably experience. With subtle yet lyrical description of internal struggles set against a foreign background, “Bivouac” serves as a deceptively symbolic read about the bleak and mirthless aspects of life and, subsequently, death.