Complicating the Grief Narrative in Colorado Review Contributor Alyssa Northrop’s “Anatomy”
Mar 03, 2020
By Colorado Review Associate Editor Elena Brousard-Norcross
In Alyssa Northrop’s short story “Anatomy” we first meet a cadaver named Aberforth in a chilly medical school room. Don’t judge me if I tell you that’s what first caught my attention. What made me keep reading, though, was the voice of the protagonist, Claire. Her voice is honest, clear.
Claire has no family, no friends, and no sleep in the new city she is living in for medical school. She has just walked out of the room of cadavers because something about them bothers her, and she meets Martin. He is an ex-Marine and the bodies run parallel to what he witnessed in combat. While he opens up to Claire and they develop a relationship, Claire holds tight to her past.
When we first learn that Claire killed her boyfriend in a car crash, it is delivered with frankness, and then Northrop moves to the next section, almost as if Claire herself is hoping to move on. It is Claire’s plain voice and often humorous observations about herself and those around her that draw a reader into her mind. Information about the car crash and her relationship with Asher, her abusive boyfriend she killed, comes to the surface slowly but well-timed. It is reminiscent of how memory functions, surfacing and then dropping back. I found this enthralling, and I read to unravel Claire’s pain and how her trajectory was so tied to Asher: “Now, months later, sometimes I catch myself feeling relieved, as if now that he’s gone, I have all the time in the world.”
The grief narrative is one that has been written a lot in literature, a universal issue that many writers try to tackle and put into words. Often, the narrative is someone is grieving, they come to an epiphany, and they are healed. I love how Northrop challenges this through examining how Claire’s grief is not really mourning the loss of Asher, but who she thought he was. Her guilt comes from losing someone she once loved but being freed by that loss.
As I read, I felt so much for Claire who was tied to that memory of Asher and who he had fixed her to be in his mind. Their plans, his accusations about her, all echo in Claire’s mind. Even as she gets closer to Martin she can’t fully open up to him, since every time he treats her well, it blooms a bad memory of Asher’s mistreatment of her. I wondered if Claire would stay in this purgatory, carrying the ghost of Asher so disturbingly rendered as the story goes on, clinging to every move she makes.
An idea of the piece I found so thought provoking was when Martin takes the fall for Claire trying to stitch the cadavers back up late one night. She wonders “where the lines are between guilt and obligation, duty and love.” This echoes back to Claire’s main conflict: that she is supposed to feel grief over her boyfriend whom she supposedly loved but was horrible to her. And in reality, she feels only guilt that she doesn’t feel this way, only relief she is free of him.
By examining the grief narrative and complicating it, Northrop has delivered a deftly crafted take on a story about healing. By writing from Claire’s voice, so close and honest that we understand her actions and struggle with her, Northrop also has created a memorable character that I grappled with, hoped, and rooted for throughout the piece.