Theo is an aging priest who has taken to his bed and is refusing to eat. Lena is his first cousin (and childhood best friend), widowed only ten months earlier, who is called to his bedside. When Lena arrives, his home is stripped bare: he has given away everything he owned (books, family heirlooms, clothes, rugs, even his bed’s quilt) including his breviary, a book he had carried with him since he was in the seminary. His home’s only contents—a few chairs, empty bookshelves—he says are borrowed.
But why has Theo stopped eating? The doctor can’t find anything physically wrong with him, although dementia is a possibility. Another priest suggests he needs to get a pet to “draw him out of himself,” and the sisters of the convent next door have no possible motive. No matter how Lena tries to ask, Theo refuses to explain.
This is where A. G. Mojtabai’s novel Thirst begins: a priest who seems to be starving himself to death for no reason and his dearest friend/cousin trying to figure out why.
But that summary doesn’t do justice to the quietness and beauty of Mojtabai’s writing. There is so much longing in these pages, so many subtle discussions of faith and purpose and the biggest questions we humans have about our very existence. Complicating matters is the fact that Lena and Theo took completely different spiritual paths, he becoming a priest, and she giving up Catholicism entirely, becoming a “fallen away.”
As a child, we learn that Theo once asked Lena, “Is there a meaning to us?” And while it seemed he had decided yes, and decided part of that meaning resided in the Catholic Church, now, it seems, he returns to that question. Lena finds a daily notebook Theo kept, most entries about the weather, the lack of rain, and gardening. But there are these entries as well, nearly the final ones:
3/2: Terrible longing for something I have no name for—
3/7: Call it thirst.
God has grown dim to me, a priest.
Theo may well be having some sort of crisis of faith; at his last Mass, he had uttered loud enough for his congregants to hear that last phrase, “God has grown dim in me.” But does that make sense of his desire to die? Especially when Theo is clearly committed to his flock, asking Lena to tell person after person that he loves them when they make the pilgrimage to his door. In one incredibly beautiful scene, Lena watches Theo, caught between sleep and delirium, perform mass with his hands, clearly handing out the Communion host over and over again.
So is it really a crisis of faith? Is it more reckoning? Has Theo chosen to give himself this time to reflect back on his life, on every choice he made from the moment he decided while still a child to join the priesthood?
Mojtabai writes, “It’s heartbreaking—to have journeyed so far and still be asking. His life is not—cannot be—an errand into nothingness.” An errand into nothingness. What a heartbreaking way to describe all of our searches for meaning. And notably, it’s not clear (at least not to me) if Lena or Theo is meant to be thinking that thought. Maybe both are thinking it.
Although I deeply admire Theo and Lena’s relationship and the ways Mojtabai describes their lifetime friendship, the preemptive loss Lena feels, what I love the most about this book is the poetry of Mojtabai’s writing. Read these words that end the first chapter when Theo decides on his course of action:
Now. It’s time to head for cover.
Listen: the rattle of bare stalks, a shuffle of wings. It’s time.
He enters his house. He will not leave it again.
These read like lines of poetry, so full of imagery and the sheer beauty of language. I love saying these sentences out loud, hearing the hard ‘t’ sounds resonate, the quiet of all those h’s. Mojtabai has taken such care in her language, in her deep respect for and questioning of faith, in the very humanness of her characters. In Thirst, she created a rare novel that asks more questions than it answers and yet, somehow, leaves me feeling satiated. In love. Ready to start over and read it again.
Andrea Scarpino is the author of the poetry collections Once Upon Wing Lake, What the Willow Said as it Fell, and Once, Then. She received a PhD in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University, and an MFA from The Ohio State University. She has published in numerous journals, is co-editor of Nine Mile Magazine, and served as Poet Laureate of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula 2015-2017. Her co-edited anthology is Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice.
A.G. Mojtabai is the author of twelve books. Among the honors she has received are a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lillian Smith Award for the best book about the American South, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has taught at Harvard, New York University, and the University of Tulsa, and now lives in Amarillo on the High Plains of Texas where she too is waiting for rain.
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