The Labor of Love

Reviewed by Carrie Brown
Sunday, January 21, 2007


A Novel

By Ann Hood

Norton. 346 pp. $24.95

"Mary showed up empty-handed," begins Ann Hood's sad and intimate new novel, The Knitting Circle. Mary has lost her only child, 5-year-old Stella, and when Hood says Mary is empty-handed, she means it not only literally but metaphorically, too, of course. Here is a woman who believes she has lost everything. Mary "opened her arms to indicate their emptiness," Hood writes, and seeing that invisible space reminds us of just how big emptiness can be. For Mary, solace comes in finding a way to pass the moments without succumbing to grief's long-armed embrace: She learns to knit.

Hood took a risk with this novel of a grieving mother who finds her way back to the world by knitting. Both grief and knitting have an inherent stasis to them, a sort of anti-momentum -- like watching the hands of a clock move round the hours -- that seems at first at cross-purposes to the requirements of fiction. With grief, the bad thing has already happened, after all.

Yet closely observed sadness reveals its own drama, the sufferer engaged mano a mano with despair. In one lovely, painful scene early in the novel, Mary walks into a supermarket and sees "the season's first Seckel pears, tiny and amber. Stella's favorites." The innocent appearance of these pears is the sort of opportunity that Hood takes advantage of. "Mary felt the panic rising in her and she turned and walked out quickly, leaving her basket with the bananas and grated Parmesan behind. In the car, after she had cried good and hard, she picked up her knitting and did one full row right there in the parking lot before she drove home."

Hood wisely makes this portrait of Mary stumbling her way through the year after her only child's death a collision course in which disaster lurks around every bend: Mary's still-young marriage to Dylan falters and lurches off course. Her career is stalled mid-flight. Her painfully unresolved relationship with her mother seems destined not to be resolved.

But prodded by her mother, who has her own mysterious stake in Mary's healing, Mary makes her first reluctant visit to Big Alice's Sit and Knit, the local knitting shop. "There's something about knitting," her mother says. "You have to concentrate, but not really. Your hands keep moving and moving and somehow it calms your brain." Big Alice herself, a diminutive woman in a tweed skirt and pearls, introduces Mary to the circle of knitters who gather on Tuesday nights and whose stories, like Mary's own, ebb and flow beneath the busy click of their knitting needles. Knitting becomes a palliative for Mary as the miserable days stretch out ahead of her, one stitch at a time, one foot before the other, and the stories of the other knitters give the novel a parallel force to Mary's struggle for survival.

Hood manages this large cast of characters well; their stories are distinct enough to avoid merging into an undifferentiated river of woe. As Mary comes to know each member of the knitting circle, she is forced to consider sadness other than her own -- for each woman has her own tale of love and loss -- and gradually she moves from the terrified periphery of the stricken bystander to the heart of others' lives. This is Mary's salvation.

The Knitting Circle was written after Hood's own tragic loss, the death of her young daughter, and it is not hard to imagine the ways in which writing this novel must have been both painful and therapeutic. It is a wondrously simple book about something complicated: the nearly unendurable process of enduring after a great loss. The novel, like knitting, seems to make itself up as it goes along, the threads bound and gathered into a whole. In the end, there is something where there once was nothing: a scarf, a pair of socks, solace where there once was pain. Little by little, by knit and by purl, Mary's empty hands are once again full. ยท

Carrie Brown's new novel, "The Rope Walk," will be published in May.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company