Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Sister, where are you? – Clover Stroud mourns her beloved sibling

‘It felt like someone had scooped out the entire inside of my body’ is how Stroud describes losing her sister Nell to cancer

Sister, where are you? – Clover Stroud mourns her beloved sibling
Nell with her performing horse, the star of many of her acts for Gifford’s Circus. [Alamy]
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The Red of My Blood: A Death and Life Story

Clover Stroud

Doubleday, pp. 258, £16.99

‘CERTIFICATE IS NOT EVIDENCE OF IDENTITY,’ the freshly issued death certificate read. In the craziness and shock of grief for her beloved sister Nell Gifford, who died at 4.20 p.m. on 8 December 2019, aged 46 (‘Cause of death: metastatic breast cancer’), Clover Stroud found herself clinging to those capitalised words.

‘Yes, the certificate was wrong… My sister was not the deceased and the very certificate I was holding was telling me that.’ She started searching for her everywhere. ‘Whereareyouwherareyouwhere-areyouwhereareyou’ she asks for one whole page of this book in an enlarged typeface denoting the din in her head. She feels as if she’s setting out into the evil depths of a forest, but what will she find? It becomes clear that her sister is not present in the ‘killer robin’ pecking away beside her as she does the gardening; nor in a twinkling star that is nothing more than a star.

This terrifying memoir of the first year of grief takes us deep into the emotional and physical wreckage caused by the premature death of a beloved. ‘What does missing her feel like?’ asks the kind therapist on Zoom in the summer of 2020. Unable to control the contortions of her face, Stroud explains that ‘it felt as though someone had scooped out the entire inside of my body’.

She’s a vigorous and fearless writer, grabbing us by the throat to describe life’s horrors and her responses to them, filling her pages with the magnetic force of her own life as wife, lover and mother of five which somehow has to go on. Wild swimming, cooking, mucking out the Shetland ponies, dragging the children up to the Ridgeway in the howling wind, sex, masturbation, smoking, drinking and taking Valium all have their various anaesthetic effects: Stroud likes to blast herself and us with physical sensations. I remember that same vigour in her powerful 2017 memoir The Wild Other, her account of the aftermath of being called out of the classroom, aged 16, to be told that her mother had fallen off her horse. She and her siblings never spoke to their mother again; she emerged from her coma but was severely mentally and physically disabled until her death 22 years later.

So Clover and Nell had already been through so much, surviving that trauma together. Her grief is… Ah, don’t say it… ‘DON’T SAY IT’ this book screams out, once again in a huge typeface. A friend of Clover’s has come to visit in the summer of 2020, and she does say it: ‘I can’t begin to imagine how you feel.’

Let that be a lesson to us: never, ever write ‘I cannot begin to imagine how you are feeling’ in a letter of condolence. None of us, surely, would be as emotionally moronic as that friend, who then goes on to say: ‘I really couldn’t imagine life without my sister. We’re so close. I really could not cope without her.’ But we might make that mistake of using the word ‘unimaginable’. The grieving person, Stroud reminds us, is ‘not just imagining it but looking right at it and feeling it and waking up while cradling it every day, tasting it, wearing it, breathing it’. Perhaps the reason why we write ‘unimaginable’ is to shield ourselves from the fact that it’s all too imaginable.

The love between the two sisters is beautifully expressed by Stroud, through flashes of memory. They shook jam jars of milk until they turned into butter. They laughed and fought and had a secret language. They played endless games of hide-and-seek. Her sister was so good at hiding that Clover would eventually give up. This feels like a horrible reliving of that. ‘She had evaded me. She had deserted me. Her death was giving me the same feeling of defeated disappointment.’

There is, thank goodness, a sort of emergence from the blackest of the blackness. The ‘whereareyouwhereareyou’ diminishes to a smaller typeface as Stroud realises, as the anniversary of her sister’s death approaches, that ‘I couldn’t lose something that was inside me, and actually was me, and I knew she was there, as bright as the redness of my blood’: ‘Somehow we endure the unendurable when rational feeling says we should disintegrate.’

This is a deeply personal memoir. I actually counted: the first-person pronoun occurs 2,830 times in the book’s 258 pages, an average of 11 times per page, meaning that Stroud is the subject of 2,830 of the book’s verbs. We live a whole year inside her life and inside her head. It can get a bit claustrophobic, but I certainly won’t forget it.