Daniel Raeburn, a creative writing professor at the University of Chicago, has recently written a memoir which will be released this month by W.W. Norton & Co. Entitled Vessels: A Love Story and dedicated to his wife, Raeburn writes about how his family was born from his wife’s miscarriage, their mourning, and the subsequent delivery of their other children.
The nearly 200-page book is an adaptation of a short piece with the same name and subject matter Raeburn published in the New Yorker in May 2006, two years after his first child’s death. The original piece wasn’t fully fleshed out. Raeburn wrote about meeting his wife and the concrete details of her later miscarriage. The story was all action. The memories it dealt with warranted more meaningful development. I was pleased Raeburn chose to revisit the story in a longer form, but ultimately disappointed when I read his full length memoir and found it similarly unsatisfying. If Raeburn’s short piece in the New Yorker didn’t delve deep enough into his experience of miscarriage and its affect on his relationship, his full length memoir went to the point of oversharing. My reading of Vessels felt cluttered with quotidian details about Bekah (his wife), their life, and Raeburn’s friends’ lives that didn’t clearly add meaning to his story.
Raeburn rarely names characters in his memoir, but refers to them by their relationship to him or their occupation (“the aunts,” “the social worker,” “the therapist”). This requires a bit of memory and close attention as a reader, but it effectively shortens your focus like blinders on a horse. Only Raeburn’s nuclear family members are given names. Those are the only characters that are fully formed and they feel so close to Raeburn’s “I,” like extensions of himself because they do contrast deeply with the remainder of the blank, unnamed figures in Raeburn’s life. I appreciate Raeburn’s choice to name only his nuclear family members because it tells us that this is the story of his family, starting with his meeting Bekah in the first few pages of the text, the loss of his first daughter, and creation of his following children. This clued the reader into which people mattered most and affected the I the most, and which characters were secondary.
A father’s experience of miscarriage is rarely explored in literature and art. Despite an inherently intriguing premise, Raeburn’s decision to include memories of trips to see extended family members, uneventful dinner parties attended, and his wife’s more minor health issues is sometimes numbing and distracting. The most captivating scene in the text is undoubtedly his wife’s stillbirth delivery. It’s graphic and so emotionally potent it’s spellbinding. The same graphic detail is far less powerful in later scenes when she appears to have the flu years after her stillbirth delivery when her health seems generally stable. Raeburn describes her fever, bowel movements, and sweaty, naked sleeping. Scenes like this seem to illustrate little other than the typical intimacy between a husband and wife.
Raeburn uses really sparse language and short sentences throughout his text. In the stillbirth scene and a few other emotional scenes this language works beautifully. It speeds the action of the text and adds drama. Unfortunately, the pacing, language, and sentence length doesn’t vary depending on the emotional weight or action of the scene though. This can be misleading and confusing at times. Furthermore, if Raeburn’s prose is consistently minimalist, we’d expect his chosen content, the events of his life he chooses to share, to also be selected in a minimalist fashion, but it’s not.
For all my issues with Raeburn’s Vessels, I enjoyed reading his descriptions of life in Chicago, the city’s pacing, moods, and rhythms. They felt natural and true and it brought me closer to the city and the story’s characters. Similarly, he does a lovely job of describing his wife’s pottery. Raeburn seems in awe of his wife’s ability and he treats it as an art form similar to writing, but perhaps more pure and organic. The pottery seems to take the symbolic place that a house typically does in most nonfiction narratives of family. An urn holds his first child’s remains. Certain dishes are broken in certain fights. Particular bowls were given as wedding gifts. The twofold symbolic function of pottery as a piece of art representative of memory/people and it’s function within the family’s life for eating, drinking, and holding is really powerful especially because the memoir is so deeply concerned with health and nurturing. Raeburn’s portrayal of a broken and blind healthcare system is satisfying. When he talks about his wife’s being abandoned by doctors, their failure to diagnose her with a thyroid condition, and the general heartless treatment of family and women’s health we’re surely reminded of our own experiences or those of our mother, grandmother, or female friends. He layers this portrait with his deeply intimate, simple, and human experience of his day to day life as a father to young children and husband to an often ill wife. The contrast is clear and gratifying.
Raeburn will read from Vessels at 57th Street Books in Hyde Park at 6pm Monday, March 28. Find the details here.