I can’t imagine a career in medicine leaves much time for writing novels, so the fact that practising oncologist Austin Duffy has just released his second is impressive enough. What’s more impressive still is the quality of that novel. Low-key, but with a cumulative power that sneaks up on you, Ten Days is a deft and affecting meditation on grief and memory.
The rather nondescript title refers to the Ten High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar. The novel begins on the eve of these, with sixteen-year-old Ruth and her goy father, Wolf, on the plane from London to New York. In the baggage rack above them are the ashes of Wolf’s recently deceased wife, Miriam, whose dying wish to have her remains scattered on the Hudson they are on their way to honour. At least, that is the official reason for their visit. Wolf, however, has a few more things on his agenda, including selling his London property and arranging for Ruth, who has only packed for ten days, to stay on in New York and live full time with Miriam’s Jewish family. It is unclear, initially, where he will be going.
The day after their arrival, the pair join Miriam’s family at their home in Queens for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a tense occasion. Cremation is all but forbidden in Judaism and so the very fact of Miriam’s ashes is an uncomfortable one for her devout relatives. Doubly so that Wolf is carrying them. Irreligious and a serial philanderer, Wolf has only recently re-entered Ruth and Miriam’s lives after a long estrangement and has never been popular with his wife’s side of the family. Nor his own. Under no illusions about how he treated her mother, Ruth is outwardly hostile to Wolf and the pair are constantly bickering. Fortunately, Duffy knows what a teenager sounds like:
‘So what do you want to do today then?’
She ignored him, so he had to repeat the question.
‘Nothing’ Ruth said, not looking up from her phone.
‘Well we have to do something.’ […]
‘I told you already,’ she said. ‘I’ve got plans.’
Now doesn’t that ring true?
Of course, Ruth’s uncommunicativeness is intensely painful for her father. Even more so when he does occasionally get through to her. For instance, during one of their exchanges, he cracks a joke that makes her laugh and “for just a minute there was no tension between them and they sat like any other father daughter.” But only for a minute. Duffy is excellent at these glimpsed moments. A photographer by trade, Wolf is alive to them too. The following sentence comes from the dialogue above, where I have put the ellipsis:
When she did look up for a split second it was Miriam’s face staring back at him. The reddish tint to Ruth’s hair, it was all Mir, her complexion darker than normal in the light they were sitting in. He didn’t want to move an inch in case she disappeared.
These misrecognitions become more frequent as the novel goes on, so much so that we start to question Wolf’s mental state. Clearly he is grieving, but is there also something else?
All the while, the world around our characters is carrying on as usual. That’s the cruel thing about grief, the indifference of others, and there is surely nowhere more indifferent than New York City. Duffy evokes the place well. During their stay, Wolf takes Ruth on a tour of her mother’s old haunts and shows her the exact bit of pavement where he said goodbye to Miriam after their first date:
Ruth was silent and they both stared and at the same time moved towards the totally nondescript patch of sidewalk that he was pointing at, absorbed for a few moments by its imaginative stimulus and – for the pair of them if for nobody else on the planet – its historical resonance.
The way we invest places with memories – place attachment – is one of the novel’s central concerns. Later on, Wolf visits Miriam’s old flat. Though it has been renovated beyond almost all recognition, “as if the past was an infectious disease that had been stamped out,” Wolf recognises it instantly. But when he is dead and gone, and his memory gone with him, what will remain of Miriam then? Especially in a city like New York, where the landscape is always changing, where life is moving at a million miles per hour, memory will always be losing ground to modernity.
In this context, religion does still seem to have a place in the modern world. For all Wolf’s sneering, it is a fact that Miriam’s Jewish family are better at remembering than he is; the pictures of long-dead ancestors on their walls, their rituals and litanies are all ways of keeping the past alive. Duffy makes a compelling case for this but doesn’t overstate it. Rather, Ten Days is a novel of character and connection, a story of memory that has continued to live in mine.
Ten Days is published by Granta and is available here.