📖 🇩🇰 #24: A devastating memoir from Denmark

Naja Marie Aidt on the death of her adult son

Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you’re enjoying my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.


Naja Marie Aidt’s memoir When Death Takes Something From You Give it Back is a clear-eyed and achingly tragic account of the first few years following the death of Aidt’s adult son. Defying genre convention by switching between poetry, prose, cultural criticism, and journaling, it’s a chaotic and restless 152-page book which I read in a single sitting, almost in a single breath. It’s the most succinct and touching depiction of grief, mourning, and trauma I’ve ever read.

In March 2015, 25-year-old Carl experienced drug-induced psychosis after taking hallucinogenic mushrooms that he and a friend had grown in their Copenhagen flat. Suffering a bad trip, Carl jumped out of their fifth-storey window and onto the street below. Aidt, who was born in Greenland and raised in Denmark, hears the news that evening, when she is at dinner with her mother and Carl’s older brother, whose pregnant wife and three-year-old daughter are asleep upstairs. At first they don’t answer the phone—after all, who would call so late on a Saturday night?

The rest of the book follows Aidt and her family in the aftermath of Carl’s death: as they make their way to the hospital; gain access to police reports; and make impossible decisions about donating Carl’s organs.

… the doctor calls Martin and me out into the hall again, I’d like to ask you, he says, if maybe you’d consider also donating some of his skin? Maybe his knees? And I say: His knees? Will you cut off his knees? Will you flay the skin off him? And the doctor says: No, we won’t cut off his knees, we won’t flay his skin, and the doctor smiles, we’ll just take the meniscus from the knees and a little skin to the burn unit. And Martin and I say: No, we will not donate his skin and knees, you may not take any more from his body. Okay, says the doctor, that’s fine…  

Aidt employs all caps, unconventional line breaks, varying fonts, italics, and run-on sentences to mimic the experience of sudden loss; a tragedy so profound it obliterates language. She borrows lines from criticism, poetry, and prose—evoking the words of Joan Didion, Socrates, Emily Dickinson, and Jan Kochanowski—to help her formulate meaning and make sense of what she’s going through. Much of the book is written in the second person, addressed to Carl.

When Death Takes Something From You Give it Back is a raw and intensely moving book. It tore me apart. But though the process of grieving her son does not lead Aidt to a moment of epiphany, she does find her way back to writing. “Once in a while I manage to write to my friends,” she says. “They write to me. Their letters keep me alive… just barely alive.”

When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman (Quercus, 2019 / Gyldendal, 2017)

More books by Danish, Faroese, and Greenlandic authors

Here’s a list of the other recommendations I got this week. I’m a big fan of Dorthe Nors.

  • The Daughter by Sara Blædel, tr. Mark Kline

  • The Arc of the Swallow by Sissel-Jo Gazan, tr. Charlotte Barslund

  • This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle, tr. Martin Aitken

  • Companions by Christina Hesselholdt, tr. Paul Russell Garrett

  • A Change of Time by Ida Jessen, tr. Martin Aitken

  • One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart, tr. Martin Aitken

  • Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen, tr. Anna Halager

  • The Brahmadells by Jóanes Nielsen, tr. Kerri A. Pierce

  • Wild Swims by Dorthe Nors, tr. Misha Hoekstra

  • The Song of Hild by Vibeke Vasbo, tr. Gaye Kynoch

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Cecilie Gormsen for her recommendations for this week’s issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!