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Learning to live after losing a child

Ann Hood's autobiographical novel attempts to describe an insupportable grief. Ann Hood's autobiographical novel attempts to describe an insupportable grief.

The Knitting Circle, By Ann Hood, Norton, 346 pp., $24.95

Two years after losing her daughter to a virulent strain of strep, years in which novelist Ann Hood found herself unable to read, to write, to focus on anything at all, she received a call for submissions from a literary magazine on the theme of lying. That night she sat down and composed an essay on lies about grief. That essay revived her ability to write, and presumably laid the foundation for "The Knitting Circle," Hood's autobiographical novel about a mother coping with the loss of her only child. The writing is predictable, bordering on clich e d, but despite that, one can only admire Hood for the effort she makes in this book to describe an insupportable grief.

The novel follows Mary, a 40-ish writer in Providence, as she struggles to go on living following the death of her 5-year-old daughter, Stella. Incapable of writing, on some days not stirring herself enough even to get dressed, Mary spends the first five months after Stella's death from bacterial meningitis watching cooking shows, sleeping, and weeping. But as the book opens, knowing that she must find her way back into the world, she has finally yielded to her mother's insistence that she join a Wednesday night knitting circle at Big Alice's Sit and Knit .

In her 70s, Alice is a matter-of-fact but kind instructor. She teaches Mary to cast on, the creation of the foundational row of stitches that is also the overarching (bordering on overwhelming) metaphor for the book as a whole. Amid the focused clicking of needles, Mary finds a temporary quietness of mind. And in the company of the other knitters, she finds a camaraderie and gradual sense of safety. For of course, this is no ordinary knitting circle. Every member of the Wednesday night group has experienced horrific loss, illness, or hardship, and in joining it, Mary is quietly welcomed into a sorority of suffering and survival.

It's a club to which nobody wants to belong, including, unfortunately, the reader. Scarlet, owner of a French bakery, is the first to share her story. But with lines like "Was it a premonition of tragedy that I had that first time I saw Claude and knew that we would be linked forever?" she's tough to relate to as anything but a question subject in a book club readers' guide. None of the other women (nor the lone gay man) fare much better in coming to life as they essentially recite the histories that brought them to the knitting circle. Mary's mother and her husband, Dylan, are painted with finer strokes and in subtler tones, but in the end they are so pale as to be indistinct from their environment.

Were it not for Mary's compelling voice, it would be easy to write off this book as formulaic in structure and almost banal in execution. But her grief is solitary, messy, and pervasive; her gradual reengagement with others has an uneven pace and stuttering quality that make it undeniably real. The lesson -- that by being willing to share our stories, we learn how to live -- cannot be dismissed.