Book Review: When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt (Translated by Denise Newman)

Liam Maher
March 14, 2022

In 2015, Aidt’s 25-year-old son, Carl, took psychedelic mushrooms and, during the ruthless trip that followed, tossed himself out of his apartment window onto the street and died. While dealing with his death, Aidt, who is a praised author of poetry, put together this collection of vignettes, stories and recollections in what is known as ‘Carl’s Book’ – a vivid expression of a mother’s pain and love for her child who died all too early. This work explores the relationship that she formed with death, who now owns her child, with reflections contextualised by other lessons from notable writers of the world.

Genre: Memoir

Content warnings: drugs, addiction, grief, death

Perfect when you’re in the mood for: a reflective memoir dealing with the pain of grief, sorrow and loss

Photo of a hardcover copy of 'When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back'.
When death takes something from you / give it back / give back what you got / from the dead one / when he was alive / when he was your heart / give it back to a rose, / a continent, a winter day, / a boy reading you / from the darkness of his hood

Execution of Premise: 5/5

Laced with pain, Aidt aims to demonstrate the devastation that was brought into her life by her son’s death and primarily focuses on the impact of time on such a process. This discussion of time is paired beautifully with her passion and gift for poetry, providing short and sharp insights into her life and thoughts before, during and after the death of her son. Even this understanding of time is challenged throughout the work as she talks about how, now that her world has been stunned, she is unable to legitimise time, saying, ‘now that you can longer be in chronological time, neither can we.'

Pacing: 4/5

Nathan Scott McNamara from the LA Review of Books says Adit’s work is, ‘like broken glass, the shattered pieces singular in their form but each glistening, ready to cut.’ This is a stunning visualisation of what Aidt does in the memoir and provides insight into the world at play. As Aidt works through her own memories, she leaps at understandings of her son found through his random notes left on the bench, little sketches at the family home and other mundane droppings. This jigsaw-like structure means that we are rushing through random thoughts and feelings, which aids the tension and flow of the poetry. Although it can take some time to find a rhythm before you fall in sync with Aidt, it’s hard to not take on her feelings and ride the journey with her.

Story and Themes: 5/5

Aidt brings the ugly and often neglected topic of death to light and doesn’t shy away from discussing the often-avoided topics of addiction and drug-use. A mother’s love for her child is so emotional and vulnerable, and it’s laid bare through our access to Aidt’s inner thoughts in her diary entries. But, as much as we focus on Carl’s story, the author continues to remind us that this is not a new experience for humanity – as long as we have dealt with death, we will continue to struggle with grief. A fundamental part of this work is the commentary Aidt brings by referring to lessons from other well-known authors, like Dickinson and Didion, who have their own reflections on the process. In doing so, Aidt reminds us that although unique and singular, events like these are part of a long lineage of grief and loss.

Craft and Style: 4/5

I’m not a huge poetry reader, and thus, I probably don’t have extensive insight into the degree of Aidt’s skill and craft; however, even as a casual reader, you cannot ignore the sheer gift Aidt has for storytelling and how beautiful her work truly is. There is such a delicate tone that is sustained throughout – even when jumping between different moments in time or different perspectives we continue to be aware of the special relationship that we are observing and its importance to Aidt and Carl as mother and son. There is also, as I mentioned before, something incredibly special in Adit’s destruction of time, which is aided by her reference to other authors of grief. It is so truly extraordinary and has left a monumental mark on me. It is also a testament to the relationship between Aidt and the translator, Denise Newman, who has brought Adit’s skill and talent to a wider audience while continuing to hold the message and power of her words at the fore.

Final Rating: 5/5

I read this work some time ago, but it remains imprinted at the front of my mind. The raw and sharp honesty about death and the absolute pleasure of reading Aidt’s work makes this a must-read. Even if poetry isn’t your usual go-to, this is a fantastic entry-point and provides an accessible way to become obsessed with superb framings of such important and fundamental challenges present within all lives.

Illustration of five stars drawn onto a torn slip of paper.

More Book Reviews