What Does It Mean to Grieve?: Review of The Impossible Resurrection of Grief by Octavia Cade

What Does it Mean to Grieve?: Review of The Impossible Resurrection of Grief by Octavia Cade

Shelby Brewster

Under Review:

The Impossible Resurrection of Grief. By Octavia Cade. Stelliform Press, May 20, 2021.

Content Warning: Suicide

Octavia Cade’s new novella, The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, is, appropriately, the story of a pandemic. A vague psychological condition called “the Grief” is slowly spreading among the global population. This “undermining upwelling of loss in response to ecosystem devastation” manifests differently in different people, but its end result is the same: death by suicide. 

Conversations on environmental grief have become more common as the effects of climate change become more visible. In late 2019, activists in Iceland held a memorial for a lost glacier. Organizations like the Good Grief Network bring people together to cope with feelings of climate loss. The Climate Psychiatry Alliance trains mental health professionals to treat symptoms of ecological grief and associated feelings of climate anxiety and existential dread.

In the world Cade creates, these feelings coalesce into the Grief. The protagonist, Ruby, a scientist with a passionate love for jellyfish, witnesses the Grief overtake her friend Marjorie, who gradually loses grip on her identity and the world around her. After Marjorie’s death, Ruby follows a trail of clues left by her friend and discovers that, for some, the Grief becomes not a gradual descent to death, but a catalyst for fighting against ecological devastation, sometimes in equally deadly ways.

The Grief reminded me, in some ways, of another pandemic story, which I read early in the COVID lockdown: Ling Ma’s Severance, in which a mysterious respiratory illness spreads rapidly, destroying the conditions of contemporary life. Unlike Ma’s languorous narrator, who persists in her monotonous job as long as possible in spite of the changes around her, Cade’s protagonist pursues every possibility to better understand her friend’s death, and the Grief itself. The novella is tense and strained, leaving the reader on edge. Cade’s compact prose delivers plot turns like punches to the gut. (I audibly gasped at an unexpected flash of violence in the novella’s first chapter.) As Ruby confronts resurrected organisms, scientists driven to drastic action by the Grief, and numerous life-threatening encounters (accompanied by her soon-to-be-ex-husband George), she finds that there are no easy answers to facing climate crisis, or the emotions that accompany it. This refusal to fall into black-and-white, good-and-bad is one of the novella’s many strengths. 

While the actual resurrection of extinct animals might not occur for many years, scientists, organizations, and institutes are currently engaged in de-extinction efforts; their candidates range from the woolly mammoth to the passenger pigeon to the aurochs. By couching de-extinction in the context of the Grief, Cade shows how this practice presents challenges beyond scientific techniques. As an “opportunity wrapped up in regret, an attempt to absolve the shame of negligence and indifference by restoring as far as possible what had been lost,” de-extinction emerges as a way to assuage environmental guilt. This serves as important counter to many other de-extinction narratives, which present the biotechnology as a way to “improve what nature has already accomplished,” a rejection of grief in favor of techno-optimistic revival, fulfilling Stewart Brand’s exhortation, “Don’t mourn. Organize.” Through the Grief, Cade shows how such efforts can go awry, “the inability to balance what was left with what was left behind.” 

Though only hinted at in the novella, Cade also points to the ways the Grief (and ecological grief) affects certain groups more than others. In describing the Grief, Ruby mentions multiple times that Indigenous peoples are over-represented in those struck by the Grief. Her (ex-) husband George, of Māori descent, explains that “the experience of watching the world change around them, the loss of the land, was an old wound kept open.” This unequal distribution of Grief demonstrates the colonialism of climate change dystopia. Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte describes it this way: 

I feel that Indigenous peoples do not always share the same science fiction imaginaries of dystopian or apocalyptic futures when they confront the possibility of a climate crisis…the hardships many nonindigenous people dread most of the climate crisis are ones that Indigenous peoples have endured already due to different forms of colonialism: ecosystem collapse, species loss, economic crash, drastic relocation, and cultural disintegration.

The characters we see wrestling with the Grief—university scientists, a famous artist—all come from places of privilege, making their “mourning down to the marrow, the inability to let go of what had been cut away,” even more complicated. What Cade’s novella shows us is that, despite the difficulty and pain, we cannot look away from ecological devastation, and that we must choose how we will respond to it.

Shelby Brewster, PhD, is a writer and editor based in Pittsburgh, PA. She received her doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Theatre Arts in April 2021. Her current project, “Planetary Praxes: Performing Humanity under Ecological Emergency,” examines multiple ways of being human emerging at the point of environmental crisis. She also serves on the editorial team at Environmental History Now. Find her on Twitter @bigbookenergy.

Works Referenced & Further Reading

Ling Ma. Severance. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

Stewart Brand. “The Dawn of De-Extinction: Are You Ready?”. TEDtalk, 2013.

George M. Church and Ed Regis, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. Basic Books, 2014.

M. R. O’Connor, Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction, and the Precarious Future of Wild Things. St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

Markku Oksanen and Helena Siipi, eds., The Ethics of Animal Re-Creation and Modification: Reviving, Rewilding, Restoring. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Beth Shapiro, How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Ben Mezrich, Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures. Atria Books, 2017.

Kyle Powys Whyte, “Indigenous Science (Fiction) for the Anthropocene: Ancestral Dystopias and Fantasies of Climate Change Crises,” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 16, no. 4 (May 2018): 3.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned by editor Jake Casella Brookins in March 2021 from a hard pitch; the author and editor had no acquaintance prior to the author’s involvement with ARB. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Stelliform Press.

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