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Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan: brave and brilliant

Book review: Illuminating reflections on loss and ‘the terrible beauty of grief’

Faith, Hope and Carnage
Faith, Hope and Carnage
Author: Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan
ISBN-13: 978-1838857660
Publisher: Canongate
Guideline Price: £20

“This might sound terrible but grief can change your life for the better,” Nick Cave told a packed Abbey Theatre in 2018. When his 15-year-old son, Arthur, died after falling off a cliff near Brighton in July 2015, people rallied around the Cave family. The singer maintains that the support of his fans saved his life.

In Faith, Hope and Carnage, the Armagh-born Observer journalist Seán O’Hagan discusses “the terrible beauty of grief” with Cave. Its words and wisdom will comfort anyone wounded by its capricious cruelty. At the outset, Cave admits to O’Hagan that he stopped doing conventional press interviews about five years ago. However, he has opened up to the world in fascinating new ways, fostering an intimate relationship with his audience through a website called The Red Hand Files and conversation events.

It is hard to imagine anyone else in popular culture allowing themselves to grieve so candidly and publicly. The intense physicality of sudden bereavement, trauma, and PTSD is openly discussed and documented, or what Cave calls “absolute annihilation” and “being obliterated by a loss”. For me, his words helped me revisit and reprocess the intense shock, horror and trauma I experienced after my brother, Séamus, died in a mountain accident three years ago. “You are tested to the extremes of your resilience, but it’s also almost impossible to describe the terrible intensity of that experience,” Cave astutely puts it. “Words just fall away.”

There is an obvious trust between both parties. O’Hagan reveals that he was completely “capsized” by grief after the sudden death of his brother. They first crossed paths when O’Hagan interviewed Cave in the colourful company of Shane MacGowan and Mark E Smith for an NME cover story in 1987, casting the trio as some kind of renegade cult-rock version of the three wise men for a Christmas issue. During the first lockdown in 2020, touring suddenly halted and a series of lengthy conversations began in a bewildering pandemic vacuum. O’Hagan transcribed more than 40 hours of these sprawling, freewheeling, no-holds barred chats, and forged them into this remarkable book. His inspiration for the project was the long-form literary interviews of Paris Review, whereas Cave took a cue from the more modern format of podcasting. Consequently, the audiobook for Faith, Hope and Carnage will be eagerly devoured by listeners like a long-form podcast.

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O’Hagan delves back into an essay that Cave wrote in the 1990s entitled The Secret History of the Love Song. It is a useful reference point, as this is where he accredits his creative journey as a reaction to the tragic death of his father in a car crash. “A great gaping hole was blasted out of my world by the unexpected death of my father when I was 19,” Cave wrote. “The way I learned to fill this hole, this void, was to write.”

Cave has endured a huge amount of loss since then. During Covid he lost his beloved mother, Dawn. The fact that he couldn’t attend her funeral in Australia, which Arthur’s twin brother Earl adroitly dubbed “a Zoomeral”, compounded his sorrow. In addition to losing Arthur, his eldest son, Jethro Lazenby, died earlier this year. O’Hagan mentions the latest calamity in the epilogue, as it occurred after their series of conversations.

The overriding theme of the book is that grief can be truly transformative and ultimately beneficial

O’Hagan and Cave dive into “the secret, terrible beauty at the heart of loss, of grief”, exploring how it informs his most recent albums, Ghosteen with The Bad Seeds, and Carnage with Warren Ellis. Cave takes immense strength from his marriage. He reveals that he is in complete awe of how his wife, Susie, channelled her grieving into the creation of a universally adored fashion brand called The Vampire’s Wife. “We survived because we stayed together,” Cave bluntly states. “It is as simple as that.”

The overriding theme of the book is that grief can be truly transformative and ultimately beneficial. “Grief comes and goes, but it no longer scares us,” Cave asserts. “We can collapse together, or apart, in the knowledge that tomorrow we will be back on our feet. I know that mostly I am happy and life is good. I don’t mean that casually or trivially. I mean that life is actually good. People are good. I rarely see badness in people; rather, I see layers of suffering.” In peeling off his own layers of suffering, a regenerative resilience radiates off the pages. Faith, Hope and Carnage redefines the potential potency of a memoir, creating a bold, brave and brilliant book that deserves to be read, reread and cherished as an illuminating reflection of how we haven’t developed the vocabulary to adequately explore death and its aftermath.

However, the good news is that through the honest expression of our darkest anguish, we can heal. Nick Cave shows us a way.

Éamon Sweeney

Éamon Sweeney, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about music and culture