Book Review: Fade by Russell Helms

May 20, 2020

There is a careful subtlety to the emotional stakes in Fade. Depression lurks in every facet of the novel. Michael, a divorced father of two, struggles to find meaning in a life surrounded by unwashed clothes, regimented pills, and constant drinking. After Anna commits suicide, her mother, Mandy, haunts her daughter’s bedroom, keeping Anna’s phone in hopes of talking to her old friends. When Michael proposes the impossible, that he will bring Anna back to life, he threatens to upend what little closure Mandy has found. She cannot see Anna’s ghost, and the devastation at hand should Michael fail, builds each time they interact, until it’s almost impossible to ignore. Mandy is volatile, her speech cautious, a moment away from tears, spiraling further each time Anna is mentioned. This is what Helms does best: illustrating how depression seeps into a person’s bones, slowly, without breaking them.

Anyone familiar with how depression fosters tedium will recognize Michael’s low points. He struggles out of bed to meet life’s demands—his job teaching English, his estranged family—lethargic in his encounters with his students and teenage daughters alike, sleeping often.

His conversations with Mandy feel claustrophobic, sometimes overwhelmed with the weight of her grief and hope. She is desperate to believe Michael’s claims that her daughter is talking to him, begging her husband to support her in believing in the impossible, at once exhausted and innervated at the chance to see her daughter again. As Michael falls further into his obsession with Anna’s ghost, it is easy to worry about their tenuous emotional states. Both show signs of untreated depression, and both refuse regular treatment. Anna is the only focus in which Michael and Mandy find consistent interest, and whether Anna’s ghost is real or not feels like a tipping point for everyone involved.

It seems fitting, then, that Anna exists only in the imaginations of other characters for the first part of the book. We learn about her in Mandy’s fear of being alone, how she clings to Michael and recalls details about a sweater she hated, grasping at memories and the past. Set Mandy’s concrete remembrance against Michael’s imperfect idea of Anna, as he tries to guess at her favorite animal, food, or hobbies, and we are left with the puzzle of who Anna really is. Neither character can envision Anna as a complete person. Mandy infantilizes Anna’s memory, reducing her to a precious daughter that Mandy didn’t help enough. Michael never knew Anna when she was alive, building an image of her based on his desire for her. Their idea of who Anna was often takes precedence over her reality as someone who struggled with suicidal thoughts and ultimately took her own life, relegating Anna’s death to a few passing conversations. Because of this, Anna’s character struggles to move past those imperfect images to hold ground as a significant actor in her story.

At the start of the book, Michael and Anna are made to parallel each other. Anna has a near-identical diagnosis and medical history to Michael, right down to the medications they take. Sometimes, this works in the book’s favor. Each coaxes the other back towards a functional life as they navigate their respective baggage, but at other times the similarities felt hollow. Despite her journey back to life, she is more often relegated to a beautiful face, thanking Michael for believing in her, allowing him to reflect, to feel needed, but never seeming to matter outside of her growing demands for his time. I spent much of the first half of the book questioning whether she was real, perhaps an imagination of Michael’s lonely psyche, a way to build purpose in his life. However, the story never seems interested in that question, playing Michael’s role in bringing a ghost back to life as a matter of fact. He is the only one that could bring her back, removing choice and agency from Anna in the process—she either sticks with Michael, alive, or dies again. The speculative nature of the book doesn’t detract from the impact of the story, but doesn’t seek to complicate its concept either, with Anna’s lack of development leaving her feeling like a prop for Michael’s pathos once the question of her existence is removed.

Still, even as Fade stumbles in its attempts at complexity there is merit in the book’s adamant desire for its characters to find happiness. The book refuses to disavow the joy Michael and Anna take in their courting. Their small, picturesque dates make up most of the book’s length, evoking a nostalgic simplicity that both characters seem to be chasing after their respective struggles with depression. The moments when Michael and Anna share brief intimacies, holding hands or sitting together to watch a sunset, are simple, but in a book so grounded in the repercussions of death, they feel necessary. Beneath the reminders of Anna’s suicide, Michael’s previous suicide attempts and depression, or Mandy’s grief for her daughter, is a story about people choosing faith over sorrow. Fade is about hope at its heart, and sometimes hope doesn’t need to be complicated.

Publisher: Unsolicited Press

Publication Date: December 18, 2019

Reviewed by Dan Mazzacane


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