A Year to the Dayby Robin Benway
I’m used to a certain kind of grief story. It begins with a shattering loss; the rest of the novel explores the question of how to go on. We follow a grieving character through the depths of the pain and the self-sabotage, the emptiness and the lashing out, the vivid or fading memories, the euphoria of being alive and seeing everything anew, until — if it’s a story that turns toward healing — the character has reached a place where we can bear to turn away.
The National Book Award winner Robin Benway upends this structure in her new novel, “A Year to the Day.” Instead of following the familiar trajectory, Benway’s novel unfolds in reverse-chronological order, away from a fragile acceptance and toward that initial, life-changing tragedy.
The novel opens exactly one year after Nina — the older sister of the novel’s 16-year-old protagonist, Leo — died in a car crash, and though Leo’s grief is no longer fresh, it’s still potent. Leo, along with Nina’s boyfriend, East, was in the car when they were hit by a drunken driver, but Leo doesn’t remember what happened. She’s suffering from memory loss, and all she can recall is that they were at a party and then her sister was dead. Maybe those lost memories aren’t the memories she wants, Leo’s mother says. But Leo isn’t so sure, and East refuses to share what he remembers.
Benway’s tenderness toward her characters and their grief permeates the story. Leo’s mother spends most of her days in bed, but she’s always loving. East offers levity by poking fun at the grief workbooks that well-meaning people send to Leo’s house. In a poignant plotline, Leo’s father and stepmother have a baby who is born in the same hospital where Nina died; her entrance into the family exists in contrast to Nina’s exit from it. “Actually, there were supposed to be two of us here today,” Leo says when she first holds her little sister. “And I’m really sorry, but I’m the one you’re stuck with. But I’m going to do my best, OK? Because I had a really good teacher.”
Benway’s prose reflects Leo’s effort to hold herself together: It’s restrained and understated, never affected or dramatic. And when Leo does lose control, the language shifts with her, taking on an urgent vitality. During a fight with East, Leo’s anger is “so white-hot and her grief so icy that they both burn inside her.” When a flash of memory seizes her while in a roller rink, “Leo closes her eyes against the light and the sound, grips on to the carpeted wall and feels the warm wind through the car’s open window.”
The flipped timeline in “A Year to the Day” presents the reader with a lot to anticipate: We want to know how the characters came to be where they are at the beginning of the book, and — though painful — we want to reach the night of the accident to learn exactly what happened, and why East refuses to speak of it. But sometimes the structure is cumbersome, obscuring information and creating suspense in areas where none is required. At times I found myself thinking that it would have been enough to be in the presence of these vivid characters as they grieved, that maybe we didn’t need such a showpiece of a structure.
Still, the backward chronology is a bold and worthy experiment. We step away from the novel carrying a secret — we now know what Leo might never remember — and thus we feel complicit in withholding the devastating truth. Ultimately, “A Year to the Day” is a moving exploration of how the mind both punishes and protects, and a reminder of how fortunate we are to love and be loved, even if only for a short time.
Nina LaCour writes for children, teenagers and adults. Her latest novel is “Yerba Buena.”
A YEAR TO THE DAY, by Robin Benway | 335 pp. | HarperTeen | $18.99