Review | A memoir of life-changing friendship and sudden loss


“I do not remember our love unfolding, that we got to know one another and in time became friends. I only remember that she came through the door and it was there, huge and permanent and first.”

These words are from Ann Patchett’s 2004 memoir “Truth and Beauty,” about her impassioned friendship with Lucy Grealy, who died a few years before its publication. The writers met in college in their late teens, and the book tracks the following two decades of shared successes and misfortunes that came to shape their enduring bond.

I thought about Patchett’s book while reading Eirinie Carson’s striking debut, “The Dead Are Gods,” another fervid outpouring of friendship, grief and love. Like Patchett, Carson writes as much to come to terms with a sudden, unexpected loss as to celebrate a transformative, unexpected meeting of two people, a blazing stroke of luck that prevailed. Both memoirs testify to the ways rare friendships can make and unmake us as fully as any fiery romance or formative familial relationship.

Carson was 15 when she met 16-year-old Larissa — tall, Black, gorgeous, dressed like a punk — in the mostly White rock festival scene of early-2000s London. “This was pre-Google,” writes Carson, the daughter of a White mother and a Black father. “I had no way of knowing that there might be people who looked like me and dressed like her.”

“The Dead Are Gods” is a tender, intricate portrait of Larissa, nicknamed “Larry,” sometimes “shmoo” or “poo poo.” Carson writes that she adored Larissa, her best friend, for the very traits that often put a strain on Larissa’s relationships with others. She was magnetic, not only for her looks and intelligence but also for her bold, demanding nature. “Larissa did nothing for anyone, she put her needs and desires before almost everything else, and in doing so lived in an honest way,” Carson writes.

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In 38 chapters filled with elegiac, rhythmic prose, Carson first tracks their lives together, in their early 20s residing in various flats around London while occasionally modeling and mostly broke; then, later, living apart, once Carson moved to Los Angeles, married and had a child while Larissa settled in Paris, experiencing a sequence of romances and heartbreaks. It was there that she died, alone in her apartment, at 32 years old. As with Grealy, the circumstances of her death were mysterious, though in both cases an accidental overdose was suspected.

Even when they were living in different time zones, the friends communicated often, if erratically, via texts, email and audio messages, sometimes meeting up to see each other in London or Paris or New York. Each chapter is punctuated by delightful, loving exchanges drawn from their digital communication, allowing readers to experience the tempo and inflections of a private, playful intimacy. (At one point, Carson adds a note at the end of one of her doting messages, observing how “my emails to you read exactly like my emails to A” — that is, Adam, her husband.)

The two friends, Carson explains, had a lot in common to begin with: They were each raised by a single mother, with estranged fathers they rarely talked about; they were drawn to literature and writing; and they both sometimes modeled, booking gigs more irregularly than they should have. (“Both of us heard ‘We already have a Black model on this job’ several million times.”) In Larissa, Carson found herself leaning into attributes and qualities she earlier disregarded or downplayed for various reasons. Her Blackness, her spunk, her confidence. “You were such a doorway to so many aspects of my adulthood, you facilitated so many moments that caused me to reassess who I was, who I wanted to be.”

Throughout, the author toggles between writing directly to an imagined reader, often a compatriot griever, and apostrophically addressing her dead friend. This mash-up — of those in the throes of grief and those who are being grieved — adds to the sense of bewilderment that drives the narrative. It suggests, too, that everyone is just a measure away from transitioning from one side of the equation to the other. At the heart of Carson’s memoir is a complicated friendship with roots so deep that they endure well beyond Larissa’s death. “You were a good listener. In fact, you still are,” Carson writes. “If I am honest you have been the one person who has been inimitable and yet the one I have most desired to be like.”

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The best friendships — the most exceptional ones — involve a kind of acceptance and understanding, an ability to see beyond the performance of one’s usual persona, that is often nearly impossible to find elsewhere. They are mutual admiration societies, and as such they bring about the best in both parties, in the long or short term. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote: “Friendship creates a community of interest between us in everything. We have neither successes nor setbacks as individuals; our lives have a common end.” That “common end” extends well beyond the transactional. It is, instead, a way of seeing, a way of being in the world, that is otherwise individually unavailable.

For Carson, there’s an irony to this experience of mutual encouragement: The person who most relentlessly supported her writing, she notes, will never be able to read the book prompted by her death, the one Carson wrote, in part, to help herself carry on. Yet she recognizes, too, that the attention she bestows on Larissa in her writing, in her grieving, is something she never would have been able to offer while her friend was alive. There were secret, distressing parts Larissa never wanted Carson to see, aspects of her life that, once exposed, would have indelibly transformed, possibly even destroyed, their relationship.

“I have never been closer,” Carson writes, “never examined your life quite like this … I can get closer than you would have perhaps allowed me when you were living.”

One can love, and be loved, fully and powerfully, and still withhold parts of oneself. This is a paradox Carson initially glosses over — in the memoir as when her friend was still alive — but she eventually recognizes it as the very essence of her persistent, unabating grief. It’s a painful realization, but it also offers a kind of fulfillment: In discovering Larissa anew, Carson lets their friendship continue to play out, and with it the very forces that gave her the space to love, to breathe and, ultimately, to try, as her friend taught her, to live as fully as possible.

Tahneer Oksman is an associate professor at Marymount Manhattan College, where she teaches courses in writing, literature and cultural journalism.

Melville House. 232 pp. $27.99

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