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Barbara Isn’t Dying


Barbara Isn’t Dying

written by Alina Bronsky, translated by Tim Mohr

BARBARA ISN’T DYING by Alina Bronsky is actually about Barbara dying. We don't realize that at first, and while the main character, Herr Schmidt (as he is referred to in the narrative) or "Schmidt, Walter" (as he refers to himself), refuses to admit that there is anything wrong with Barbara, it becomes crystal clear to us that she is not getting any better. It also becomes apparent as we read the narrative from Walter’s point of view that he is not a nice man. He has few friends, and Barbara has waited on him hand and foot throughout their marriage.

So one morning, when Walter wakes up and realizes that he doesn't smell the coffee that Barbara brews for him every morning, his first thought is that she has died. He then thinks that's impossible because of her robust health. So when he finds her fallen on the floor, he doesn't understand what is happening. Barbara goes back to bed.

"I think Bronsky would like us to create our own [ending]. Instead of tying up the story neatly with a bow on top, we will wonder about it."

Walter is helpless when it comes to even preparing a cup of coffee for them. Barbara has cooked and cleaned and served him basically since his mother had performed all those tasks. Now he's completely inept. But we soon see how resourceful Walter can be; he goes to the bakery and gets coffee there. Eventually, he learns how to make it himself with the help of the girl who works at the bakery.

As Barbara doesn't really get any better, Walter continues to believe, or at least profess to believe, that if he can just get her to eat enough, she will recover. When their two adult children visit and take her to the doctor, Walter doesn't go with them or even ask how the appointment went. Karin and Sebastian want their mother admitted to the hospital, as the doctor suggests. But Barbara says no, and Walter supports her decision. He still knows nothing about her diagnosis.

As time passes, Walter learns to cook and bake, as well as use the computer, which previously had belonged to Barbara. But the changes in Walter go deeper than those superficial improvements. We find out about his past with Barbara and his cruelties, small and large, along with his prejudices and small-mindedness. In fact, Karin is in a relationship with another woman, yet he still refers to them as best friends. His mind cannot conceive of any other kind of relationship.

As the months pass, we see Walter interact with his old buddies, the women who know his wife and stop by to help, old friends he doesn't really want to see, a local woman with whom he has a mysterious past, and his own children, whom he resents at first but then comes to appreciate --- perhaps just a bit more.

As we see Walter change, we come to dislike him less. We wonder (at least I do) if he is on the autism spectrum due to his inability to read people, engage in small talk, smile and act nice, even if he isn't feeling it. He's not a very likable person, but he's undergoing a metamorphosis. Like the beautiful butterfly that emerges from the hard-shelled chrysalis, Walter is changing into something not beautiful, but kinder and stronger.

This is a quick read at only 182 pages. In fact, the ending is a bit abrupt. I checked to make sure it actually was the ending of the story because, in fact, there really is none. I think Bronsky would like us to create our own. Instead of tying up the story neatly with a bow on top, we will wonder about it. What will happen next? What will Walter’s family make of his decisions? Is he really a changed person? For this reason, I think BARBARA ISN’T DYING would be a perfectly marvelous book to read with a book club.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on September 15, 2023

Barbara Isn’t Dying
written by Alina Bronsky, translated by Tim Mohr

  • Publication Date: May 9, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Europa Editions
  • ISBN-10: 1609458427
  • ISBN-13: 9781609458423