Michael Rosen's Sad Book, written after the death of his son, deals with spiritual darkness - but its devastating conclusion is also curiously uplifting
I was having dinner with friends when someone first passed me Michael Rosen's Sad Book. "But don't look at it now if you don't want to cry," she said.
I thought she was joking. Besides, I'm not a crier. And I loved the cover. The man on it looked distraught all right, but there was a funny little scrawny Quentin Blake dog and an upturned bin. It seemed to me that there would be just as many light moments as dark ones. So I started reading.
Within moments, as I remember it now, the chatter around the table, the warming laughter and chinking glasses, disappeared. Sad Book is instantly overwhelming.
It starts with a very funny Quentin Blake picture of Michael Rosen, pulling a very funny grin, on his very funny face. Of course, you have to smile too, until you read the words:
"This is me being sad.
Maybe you think I'm being happy in this picture.
Really, I'm being sad but pretending I'm happy.
I'm doing that because I think people won't
like me if I'm being sad."
Ouch. It doesn't get any easier when you learn what makes Rosen most sad. His son Eddie died when he was 18. "I loved him very, very much," Rosen says, "but he died anyway."
In the rest of the book Rosen explains how he copes – or doesn't cope – when he is in that "deep dark" place and feels sad. It's a deeply personal insight; but also universal. We feel sad with and for Rosen, and by extension with and for Quentin Blake, who has given the book such heartrending illustrations.
Rosen and Blake feeling sad? To know that it's these two in such misery adds special poignance. These two are bringers of joy. And not just any joy: they make children laugh. It's as unsettling as it would be to see Animal make a cameo in The Seventh Seal– or death stalking the Muppets. And yet, it's true. Here they are expressing terrible pain. It's heartbreaking.
I didn't cry though; not until I got to the last page. I was thinking I must have an especially tough hide, when I turned to that final image, and, damn it, found myself snatching my breath, turning away from the dinner table, and – through a film of tears – looking round the room for something to distract my attention and stop me from tipping all the way over into helpless blubbing.
It is the most devastating conclusion. Harder than Sophie's Choice, Of Mice And Men, Bambi or Watership Down. To say too much would spoil the surprise. No, wrong word: the shock. Suffice to say that it is an image of shattering despair. But also – and this is the real beauty of this precious book – curiously uplifting. Sad Book doesn't hide the darkness. It doesn't try to pretend that suffering and sadness are easy to bear. But it does at least show that it's okay to feel bad sometimes. We all do it – and so none of us is ever entirely alone. There's always some light, even if it's a single, lonely candle. Sad Book is a book I'd recommend to anyone. Or almost anyone. I've bought a copy for my daughter. But I don't know if I can bear to show it to her yet.