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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Ann Hood’s New Novel Plumbs Sibling Guilt and Sorrow

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By Ann Hood

Over the course of her long career, the author Ann Hood (“The Obituary Writer,” “The Book That Matters Most”) has returned to themes of grief and loss again and again, not repetitively but in the sense of mining one vein for its richest stories. She has explored grief in fiction and memoir, in essays and even recipes, but never before in her work for younger readers.

In “Jude Banks, Superhero,” we meet 12-year-old Jude, whose heart has been broken by the sudden death of his younger sister. Irrepressible Katie was brave and impulsive, theatrical and smart. Jude, not quite a year older, was content to live in her shadow, even when people looked right past him to say things about Katie like, “She’s going to take over the world someday, isn’t she?” Jude wasn’t jealous of his sister, he was proud. And then, in one terrible moment, Katie was gone.

Now Jude is racked with secret guilt: For reasons that take some time to emerge, he truly believes her death is his fault.

Back when Katie was alive, Jude would find things she’d lost and fix things she’d broken, and grateful Katie would say: “You, my brother, are a hero. … You’re a superhero.” Can he be a real one? Jude wonders. A caped crusader who saves others though he could not save his sister?

Soon Jude is poised to rescue small children who he thinks might choke on lollipops or drown in swimming pools — efforts, it turns out, that are misdirected. The person Jude really needs to save is himself, and he can’t fix his own guilt by swooping in to avert other people’s disasters.

Hood is brilliant at showing the ordinary moments of a family’s heartbreak. Even as Jude struggles, he tries to help his parents. These are the most affecting scenes in the book.

In an effort to rekindle old happiness, he takes out the Halloween decorations — but now they are silly instead of scary. When casseroles keep coming from concerned neighbors, Jude tries to engineer a custom order for his mom.

Any reader who has mourned will appreciate the way Hood captures the rhythm of grief. There is giving as well as taking, one step forward and two steps back.

This novel is profoundly sad, but there are also lighter moments, like Jude’s sessions with his baffling yet strangely effective therapist and his decision, as a self-convinced murderer, to lawyer up.

He develops a new friendship with a grieving girl whose pain matches his; they fit together like two magnets, though her story takes a darker turn. Jude’s superhero capers are bittersweet and lovely.

Some of Hood’s cultural references are a bit dated. And Jude’s memories of Katie contain little conflict; they feel almost too good to be true. Do real siblings say “I love you” to each other in multiple languages? It’s hard to tell who’s idealizing family life, the author or the narrator.

But there are many readers who are navigating guilt and sorrow right now — for them, this book is a must. And for those lucky enough to take the journey only in their imaginations, this is a story of resilience in the face of devastating pain. There’s not an easy ending here, but there is plenty of hope as Jude begins to see that he can let go of some pain without letting go of Katie.

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