Novelist elegantly handles assisted suicide

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September 4, 2013


By David Gilmour

Published by HarperCollins

185 pages, $23.95

Reviewed by Lynne Van Luven


More Baby Boomers are ageing, sickening and dying than ever before.  And yet more are to come.  So it’s no wonder that “assisted death” is becoming an increasingly newsworthy subject.  And therefore it’s no surprise that writers are turning to the topic with renewed vigour.

Toronto novelist David Gilmour’s newest publication, his eighth book of fiction, tackles the controversy head-on, in compressed prose that is somehow both elegant and colloquial.  I don’t think I am the only one who has fallen upon this succinct work with great interest and equal hunger.  The voice of the narrator is arresting from the very first sentence – “What, You didn’t know I had a sister?” – to the last dying note – “ ‘Goodbye, Sally, I said, goodbye, and then I went down the back stairs and went home.’ “

Ostensibly, the novel takes place over the course of a Saturday evening in June, in Sally’s apartment, which is located in a large urban centre that sounds a lot like Toronto.  But through the siblings’ hours of conversation, the life of an entire family is encapsulated, including such huge events as sex, divorce, parenthood, life and death.

Sally is a strong person, a person who finds the courage to leave a bad marriage, become a single parent, resume her artistic life and pursue an independent and path even after a rogue accident (she trips on a carpet at a cocktail party) lands her in a wheelchair.  She lives her life the way she wants, and she orchestrates her death the same way. The brother is fifteen years his half-sister’s junior and has hitherto been somewhat neglectful of his sibling, whom he regards as  “ a hearty soul.”

But on the night in question, Sally’s spirit has reached its limits because she is able to do fewer and fewer things for herself; her life, she says, has become “less and less manageable.”  So she invites her brother over with the terse instruction to “bring a bottle of Russian vodka.”  Over the next month or so, having “agreed to help her kill herself,’ the brother collects the requisite number of unnamed sleeping pills to do the job.  When the night comes, the siblings talk for hours, their conversation wandering and weaving, sometimes coming back to the reason for the visit, sometimes soaring far away from the ultimate purpose.

“Do the dead forgive us?  I wonder,” Gilmore writes, in the first chapter.  “I hope so.  But I suspect not.  I suspect they do nothing at all, like a spark flying from a burning campfire:  they just go pssst and that’s it.  How they felt about you in that last second is where you remain, at least in your thoughts, for eternity.  Or rather, until you go pssst too.”  This is a powerful book from start to finish.  It will anger many readers, but I suspect it will comfort many more.


Lynne Van Luven’s current book project involves research into end-of-life issues.

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