BALCONY VIEW - Living at Ground Zero after 9/11, by Julia Frey
INDIE READER book review April 14, 2021: 4.5 stars
BALCONY VIEW is an honest, sometimes raw account from Julia Frey of dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 in her Battery Park City apartment across the street from Ground Zero, and it brilliantly documents an inner strength and a willingness to fight adversity that she didn’t know she had before.
Julia Frey was a quintessential New York intellectual in 2001, teaching collegiate French and writing while living with her husband and fellow author Ron Sukenick in a comfortable Battery Park City apartment across the street from the World Trade Center complex. On September 11, everything changed as the terrorist attacks that blew the Twin Towers to kingdom come brought her own world down upon her.
BALCONY VIEW is Frey’s diary of the six months following 9/11, documenting her observations of and reactions to the destruction that occurred right outside her window. What started as a record of a literal witness to history evolves into a raw and honest account of a woman who finds herself trying to cope with the horror of 9/11’s aftermath while trying to keep her and Sukenick’s lives from coming apart. Sukenick was terminally ill in 2001, increasingly unable to walk and in need of round-the-clock assistance, and Frey found herself having to handle virtually everything. The scope of the ruins of Ground Zero and the trauma of displacement were a huge burden on Frey, already dealing with attention deficit disorder in addition to her husband’s troubles. She and her husband were even forced to leave her cat behind in the apartment after having to evacuate and find temporary accommodations elsewhere. The stress of dealing with 9/11 reveals a woman trying to maintain her composure who manages to depict a vivid and harrowing description of a city trying to recover.
Retuning home after the worst of the damage is cleared and the apartment is deemed safe, Frey finds no relief. BALCONY VIEW elegantly describes the painstaking removal of the ruins and the growing sense of doom as autumn turns to winter. Every pause to retrieve the dead and every fire that flares up as the twisted steel and mangled concrete are removed, all in view from Frey’s apartment, provide a backdrop for Frey’s frustration in caring for Sukenick and fuels her sense of hopelessness. Her friends can only give temporary comfort, and her inability to communicate with her boyfriend Malcolm – whom Sukenick chose as her lover so she could maintain an active romance when Sukenick no longer could – confuses and confounds her. But even though death and despair threaten to envelop her in perpetual sorrow, Frey’s highly personal account of her life after 9/11 demonstrates a willingness to hang on and see things through, and she brilliantly documents an inner strength and a willingness to fight adversity that she didn’t know she had before. BALCONY VIEW cold be described in clichéd terms as being about a woman who searched for meaning in life after 9/11 and found herself, but it’s more of a tale of an intellectual who learned how to overcome a crisis in a world that could no longer be explained by rational thought. Her raw motions produce the best 9/11 document that anyone living across from the Twin Towers could produce.
BALCONY VIEW is being reissued in 2021 in tandem with both the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and the reality of the COVID pandemic, making the point of the pandemic as a parallel of Frey’s own experience of a time when it was all right not to be all right. Appended to the 2021 edition is a short story from Sukenick, who died in 2004, about a starving peacock, preceded by a post-mortem from Frey about a peacock who unexpectedly appeared at the home of her friend and current husband, Guust Nolet, a few days after Sukenick’s death. The elegant prose from both Sukenick and Frey bring to life the metaphor of the peacock as a symbol of remembrance of past loved ones.