The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood

I tend to shy away from books that have “knitting” in the title as they are invariably recommended by people who think that because you knit, a fictional book about other people knitting must surely be of interest to you. This is, I know, a fair assumption to make and I don’t mean for that to sound ungracious but it does not always tally that it is going to be a good read. I like to read thrillers about murderers but I have not killed and have no intention of killing anyone, which I think proves my point admirably.

However, I was wrong about this book. This book is not about people knitting. Actually, it is…but it is so much more. What it is, is an absolute gem, the best book that I have read currently in 2021 and that’s over 40 days which has included a lot of good books.

Mary has lost a child, her daughter, Stella. She is lost, trying to find a reason to live, something to break her out of her debilitating grief. And it is paralysing because at every turn, in every interaction, in every conversation, there are reminders of what she had and what she’s lost and the rawness of the pain, sharp like a knife thrust, causes her to run mentally and sometimes physically from human interaction.

She has a fraught relationship with her mother, who has been and remains emotionally and physically distant, despite her loss. In addition, her marriage is becoming more and more strained as Dylan, her husband, plunges himself resolutely into his work as a lawyer, leaving her to contemplate her mental anguish on her own.

Her mother suggests that Mary joins a knitting circle but Mary is resistant to the idea, the thought of meeting with a group of strangers when she feels so mentally frail an obstacle that seems impossible to conquer. But when Alice from “Big Alice’s Sit and Knit” leaves a message on the answerphone, Mary decides to go, realising that she needs to focus on something other than her grief.

It is not an instant cure but what does happen is that Mary meets other people who have experienced grief, whether that’s the loss of a child or a lover; some are currently in the throes of difficult circumstances which means that their courage and optimism are continually tested; also, they may be the person who will be lost.

Each lady, starting with Alice herself, shares her story with Mary and teaches her something about knitting at the same time. More and more emerges about the group as the novel goes on and the strangers become friends and a support network.

Life for Mary gets worse before it gets better as it does for certain ladies at the circle: Ellen worries for her daughter’s heart; Beth starts to feel tired and is concerned that she is falling ill again; the only male member, Roger, a sporadic attendee, needs to finish a blanket for his partner before it is too late.

All human sadness is here: tragic death, lost lovers, regret, violence, disease. But what is also present in this book is the ability of people to overcome, to find joy in the little things and be supported by others who have also lost, finding, if not comfort, then a mutual recognition in the shared experience.

What I especially liked about this book was its honesty about how Mary feels about her situation. Ann Hood does nothing to mute the resentment that Mary feels towards others who she views as more fortunate, inserting her inner thoughts into the narrative. She also explores the way that despite the passing of time, Mary just cannot get beyond her sense of having lost; she shows how Mary isn’t deliberately prevaricating about getting on with life – it is literally impossible for her.

I wasn’t surprised when I got to the end of the book and read the writer’s note – it felt too vivid for it to be purely fictional.

The novel ends with Mary finding some closure on some of the issues that have been hindering her ability to move on, especially her relationships with her mother and husband, without it resulting in letting go of everything that she had before Stella’s death. The climax of the book is satisfying in its conclusion.

I am not ashamed to admit that this book made me cry, sob even at times, at the unfairness of it all; how life throws stuff at you and you either go under or you somehow find the means to get past it, although this may not be a continual upwards process. It may be littered with setbacks and anxieties and crises and you may feel like you are doing it on your own, even if you have people around you because it is you that has to find the way: you and you alone.

But what this book points out so wonderfully is that there will always be others to light the way. And there will always be knitting.

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