Like her most recent works, the novel John Dollar (1989) and the story collection Herself in Love (1987), Marianne Wiggins’ Bet They’ll Miss Us When We’re Gone is concerned with vulnerable characters.
Angel, the eleven-year-old protagonist of “Angel,” has been abandoned by her parents. Her maternal grandmother, Fanny, takes care of her. If they are close, it is not through words at first, for Fanny does not speak Angel’s English nor Angel Fanny’s Greek, though they do share a small vocabulary in both languages.
Fanny’s husband, Papou, has died, and her sons’ marriages are tragic. Her son George is put in jail for murdering his wife Brenda’s lover, and Brenda leaves him. Jeanette, the wife of Fanny’s son Archie, is killed in a car accident. Cat, the wife of her son Nick, dies of a stomach ailment. None of these women, whom Fanny collectively calls “the Dots” after her son Mike’s wife Dot, has children, which is a further, and even more basic, disappointment to her.
That something good can come from death itself Ray Gould, the undertaker who lives next door, shows Angel in his deft use of makeup on cadavers and in his bringing flowers left over from funerals to the house. He functions as an image pointing out that the living need lovely memories of the dead.
Angel translates this into the bits and pieces she collects from departure and death—Brenda’s old lipstick, for example, which this “Dot” gives her when murder drives her from her marriage, and Cat’s “Miss Conviviality” trophy, which she won when she was young. These objects help Angel to keep her missing parents in her memory.
Fanny and Angel need each other for two reasons. The first is practical: Angel needs a mother, and Fanny needs a helper. Angel gives Fanny (who is a diabetic) her injections, helps her clean the rugs each week, and acts as a translator for her when she visits George in jail.
The second and more important reason is emotional. This need is made plain at the story’s end, when Angel and Fanny, alone in the house, share their mementoes with each other. Words do not have to be understood to be felt in this scene. By holding Fanny’s wedding shawl while Fanny speaks of her marriage, Angel understands what the past means to her grandmother. By holding Angel’s treasures while Angel tells stories about them, Fanny understands what they mean to her granddaughter. These objects, memories, and words fuse to reveal a vulnerable love and to counteract loss.
“Zelf-Portret,” “Croeso I Gymru,” “Shibboletboo,” and “Grocer’s Daughter” present characters whose identities are vulnerable. In these stories, language itself assumes the task of rescuing identity.
“Zelf-Portret” is drenched in a frustration that would be despair if it were not for the story’s wordplay. The narrator says, “What breaks the heart in the end are the facts, not the fiction.” She seems to mean that what happens in life, including the act of writing, has no true identity outside itself.
Art tries to overcome this fact. It uses analogy to do so, but it fails, for analogy is “lies…beginning from that line…where it touches at another zelf.” This “zelf” (identity) can be the writer’s own, which, in this story, is both the woman who rides a train in The Netherlands and visits Anne Frank’s hiding place there and the woman who needs to write about this and about writing about it.
If the second “zelf” is closer to the reader than the first because it happens in the writer’s tussle with words on the page, it is still only an illusion, for the writer’s experience of this frustrating project is no longer going on; it is the past. Even when it was going on, it was self-contained, partly because the past instantly claimed it.
This is true of Anne Frank and Hieronymous Bosch, too, for Frank’s attic room, her pictures, and her diary are not the feelings she had nor the death that came to her, and Bosch’s paintings are not the visions that disturbed him into making them.
No wonder the narrator dotes on death, which her allusions and puns let us see but cannot let us feel her feeling for. She spends much of the story’s time on Anne Frank’s absence and annihilation, words like the “nether” in Netherlands and the “low” in Low Country, and especially on the letter “z,” as in last (the last letter of the alphabet), going nowhere (the Dutch z.o.z., meaning “continue”), slipperiness (the Dutch word zee, meaning “sea”), and experience (self, damned to ending where it begins, as the narrator shows by substituting “z” for “s” in the word).
Marianne Wiggins was once married to Salman Rushdie, an experience that forms the background of “Croeso I Gymru.” “The president of a bankrupt desert nation,” an “aged psychopath,” as the narrator calls him, has demanded her husband’s death for writing a book that he (the Ayatollah Khomeini, of course) finds blasphemous, and to save themselves, the couple goes into hiding in Wales. To the narrator, this exile means an identity cancelled by a fear of words and an identity regained by a love of words.
The narrator says, alluding to Julius Caesar’s commentary on the Celts’ view of the power of writing, “those who could write of…rite and of worship…must be feared.” She imputes this fear to her husband’s enemy, and it makes her wonder, “What are words made of?”
All she knows is that learning, at least in her case, depends on words, and that without learning, and writing down what she wants to and does learn, she is the no one that her husband’s would-be assassin has forced her to pretend to be.
Thus she learns as much as she can about Wales,...
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