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A Severe Mercy

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Sheldon Vanauken. 240 p. Published by Harper & Row, 1997.  Borrowed from the San Francisco Public Library.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

Who Cares? Adult Non-Fiction – Memoir

Not-so-Short Bio (from Amazon):

A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken, is a heart-rending love story described by its author as “the spiritual autobiography of a love rather than of the lovers.” Vanauken chronicles the birth of a powerful pagan love borne out of the relationship he shares with his wife, Davy, and describes the growth of their relationship and the dreams that they share. As a symbol of their love, they name their dream schooner the Grey Goose, “for the grey goose, if its mate is killed flies on alone and never takes another.”

While studying at Oxford, Sheldon and Davy develop a friendship with C.S. Lewis, under whose influence and with much intellectual scrutiny they accept the Christian doctrine. As their devotion to God intensifies, Sheldon realizes that he is no longer Davy’s primary love–God is. Within this discovery begins a brewing jealousy.

Shortly after, Davy acquires a fatal illness. After her death Sheldon embarks on an intense experience of grief, “to find the meaning of it, taste the whole of it … to learn from sorrow whatever it had to teach.” Through painstaking reveries, he comes to discover the meaning of “a mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love.” He learns that her death “had these results: It brought me as nothing else could do to know and end my jealously of God. It saved her faith from assault. …And it saved our love from perishing.”

Eyewitness Account: This was our April book club selection.  The piece that was most interesting was hearing a guy so articulately describe his love for his wife – how rare is that?  Also, it was extra-intriguing to hear his “pagan” philosophy on how to have a love/marriage that lasts forever, and then hear how that view was challenged when he and his wife became Christians while at Oxford.  He concludes a beautiful love story by saying that he came to accept his wife’s death as a mercy wrought by God for his own best interest (pretty ballsy).

Unfortunately, those bits were wrapped up in too much slow-moving memoir for me to find it an overall engaging book.  I’ll caveat that by saying that memoir is not one of my favorite genres, and those who enjoy reading bios or autobiographies will probably get a whole lot more enjoyment out of this book.   Also, you might like it if you 1) read poetry, as Vanauken has his poetry peppered throughout the story, or 2) like reading anything by C.S. Lewis, as his letters to Vanauken are also scattered throughout.

A side beef – I thought the book would have been better if the guy hadn’t been pushing his relationship with C.S. Lewis to the forefront throughout it.  Even if Lewis really was such an influence, I continually felt like Vanauken (or his editors) stressed it more than he would/should have in order to make it a selling point for the book.  I’m an avid Lewis fan, but the constant interjection of the letters kept annoying me because this was not supposed to be Lewis’s story – it was Vanauken’s. Just my two cents :).

Notable Quotes:

“Under the surface of the visible world, there is an echoing hollowness, an aching void — and it cuts one off from the beloved.  She is as remote as the stars.”

“Considering the prayers and their answers and considering the events . . . I cannot escape the impression that Somebody was being very gentle with us.  Perhaps she had to die — for me, for our dear love, for God.  And I had to live with grief, for God.  But He was, perhaps, as gentle with us both as He could be.”

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying? What’s Wrong With the World, Lisa Notes, Reading to Know


★★★☆☆ Writing Style

★★★☆☆ Organization

★★★☆☆ Original Idea

★★☆☆ Page Turner

Overall ★★★☆☆


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