The Gravedigger, by Ilan Herman

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The Gravedigger, a novel by Ilan Herman. Reviewed by Lynn Alexander for Crow Reviews. This is Herman’s debut novel from Casperian Books, released this Spring.

Sometimes he thought that all life was wasted. That was the nature of life- to be wasted. No bending words could change that.   -The Gravedigger

Ilan Herman admits that questions about mortality and purpose remain unanswered, despite our best efforts to confront them. Perhaps there is something in us that wants to keep trying, perhaps a stubborn tendency that makes us unwilling to let these questions go despite the obvious fact that we seem to come up empty. For some it is not a matter of pursuing purpose, but pursuing faith, choosing to have faith or being moved to simply accept or believe things even in the face of those questions.

Sometimes a writer does not presume to give us answers, but has come to understand that the processing and confrontation sets a wheel in motion in our own minds to chase our own struggles. I think that, above all, is what Herman wants us to come away with after reading The Gravedigger– that sense of being stirred to think. Why do we live?

Starting off with Noah and Adam, Herman establishes these characters and illuminates tendencies in their thinking about people and the particular vocation of preparing graves. We suspect right away that there are some deliberate choices among Herman’s details whose symbolism come to light later on and whose placement set the stage for the story’s elements. In the initial exchanges between the men, we see their regard for life and “purpose” manifest, begin to understand the connection to the act of digging a grave. Does the gravedigger traverse life and death, “the void”  (p.27) or ferry the living back to the resting place of earth, nature?

Does the gravedigger bring closure to living?  In digging, does he carve places in the world for people to inhabit, places of significance, something permanent?

The men are even carving in the cabin, carving potatoes, rendering them. The masks that are removed later are nameless people, given shape.

We live for thousands of days until, one day, none remain…

I won’t spoil the story, but it gets interesting during a visit to one of the  mausoleums (tomb), where Adam is forced to rethink many things that he had considered settled in himself. Herman describes these kinds of pivotal moments: when we learn terrible news, when something tragic happens. What happens to Adam is just as rattling and furthermore- old wounds are opened.

The Gravedigger takes the reader to unexpected places, and challenges our habits: just when you think you know what Herman is setting up, you find you guessed wrong. And if you think that this is a novel that will wrap itself up neatly in a formulaic package, you’d be wrong again.

We are taken on this journey of characters, each struggling not only with life’s purpose and sense, but with the relative morality of their actions. We see similar questions considered by strikingly different people. Herman contrasts evil with innocence, seemingly deserved tragedies against unthinkable loss that seems cruel in its randomness.

The Gravedigger ultimately struggles with what people, irrespective of eon, age, geography, or circumstances struggle with: What happens when we die?

What happens to the living? How much of what we believe comes from our desire to feel comfort about loved ones lost, or ourselves and our mortality?

This is a remarkable first novel, from an author who joins complicated concepts with accessible storytelling to produce something that both engages and moves us.

The Gravedigger is available from Casperian Books,

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