On Christmas Eve, a family has gathered around the table for the obligatory dinner. The father, once an imposing figure who terrorized his children, has suddenly fallen prey to Parkinson’s. Yesterday’s tyrant is now trapped inside a disintegrating body. André, the eldest child, is nearing 60. He has never loved the father who lied too much, abused too much, manipulated too much. But still, this holiday week, André cannot help but be moved. How should he behave toward a parent to whom all pleasures are forbidden? ...
On Christmas Eve, a family has gathered around the table for the obligatory dinner. The father, once an imposing figure who terrorized his children, has suddenly fallen prey to Parkinson’s. Yesterday’s tyrant is now trapped inside a disintegrating body. André, the eldest child, is nearing 60. He has never loved the father who lied too much, abused too much, manipulated too much. But still, this holiday week, André cannot help but be moved. How should he behave toward a parent to whom all pleasures are forbidden? Should he struggle to prolong the old man’s life, or help him end it? Around the dinner table, opinions are divided. At once intimate and universal, A Good Death is a deeply moving voyage into the essence of humanity. In it, Gil Courtemanche once again asks readers to confront the question that lay at the heart of his first novel: Why live? Why die?
French-Canadian Courtemanche opens his flawed second novel (after Sunday at the Pool in Kigali) with a vivid portrait of the narrator's father at dinner with his large family on Christmas Eve struck dumb and feeble by rigid Parkinson's and stuffing himself with food. André, the narrator and eldest child, confesses he has never loved his father, a tyrant he unabashedly compares to Stalin. Flashbacks reveal a violent and domineering but insecure man who jealously once claimed the prize-winning walleye André caught in a fishing competition. As the evening progresses, André concludes that his father is better off dead, but it is impossible to tell whether the idea of patricide by gourmandism, proposed as a joke that ultimately becomes part of a plan, springs from a benevolent change of heart or from Oedipal rage. The story plays out mostly in André's head, through summary and analysis rather than drama, and the lusty, repellent father is the only character who truly comes alive on the page as the novel heads toward its shocking conclusion. (Sept.)
Nine surviving adult children and their families gather for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner at the home of their fragile, ailing parents. Though he's dying of Parkinson's and the aftereffects of a devastating stroke, the patriarch continues his lifelong reign of terror. His saintly, long-suffering wife, imbued with a serenity that baffles her children, is worn out from caring for his physical needs while running interference with her brood of offspring, in-laws, and grandchildren and trying to maintain the appearance of a close-knit family. With Andre, the eldest child at 59, who is engaged to the much younger, solidly centered Isabelle, Canadian author Courtemanche beautifully captures the conflicted dynamic of a dutiful child who has never loved his father, desperately needs to please his loving mother, and can only survive by maintaining emotional distance from the whole messy swamp of lifelong familial grievances and entrenched behaviors. VERDICT This follow-up to the brilliant Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (2003) beautifully compacts the big issues of aging, dying, and duty into scenes of resentful devotion, cheerful fatalism, and intimacy held at arm's length. Highly recommended.—Beth E. Anderson, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Gil Courtemanche is a journalist, essayist and novelist based in Montréal, Quebec. His best-selling first novel, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, was an international sensation; it has been translated into many languages, sold in over twenty countries and made into a film.
Wayne Grady, one of Canada’s foremost popular science writers, has won three Science in Society awards from the Canadian Science Writers’ Association. In 2004 he collaborated with David Suzuki on Tree: A Life Story, a best-seller now in its third printing. He is the author of eight books of non-fiction, translated eight novels and edited six anthologies of short stories.
My mother is shrinking. My father is getting bigger. Mother pecks at her food and spends more time talking than eating. My father pretends to be listening to her deluge of chatter, but he isn’t really following the conversation. He’s stuffing his face, shoveling down his food like an ogre, not uttering a word. It occurs to me that my mother began shrinking when she had to do all the talking, whereas my father began swelling up when Parkinson’s stopped his tongue with his words still resonating in his head. I don’t find the thought amusing.
The doctor explained it to me. “It’s called rigid Parkinson’s, plus there’s his recent stroke. I’ll spare you the scientific details; let’s just say there’s been a communication breakdown among his neurons. The brain gives the order to walk, but the neurons don’t receive the command in time and so the patient falls down. The patient wants to talk, but his vocal cords and mouth react too late. They don’t receive the electric impulses soon enough. He knows how to walk and talk, he’s conscious, he understands everything. But he falls down, or he babbles like a baby and you get the feeling he isn’t there and doesn’t hear you. It’s not that complicated I forgot to mention, it’s a degenerative disease. You do understand what that means?”
Yes. Thank you, doctor. And does it go on for a long time? Years. Can anything be done, I mean in terms of medication? No. We try to control it. Thank you, doctor.
So my father is busily conceiving words, sentences, whole paragraphs, in his head. He has always spoken in complete paragraphs. He hears and understands everything we say, wants to discuss, explain, demolish his children’s arguments, is delighted with the withering riposte he has thought of, the demonstration he is about to make, but then he doesn’t hear his mouth deliver them. He hears all those lovely words in his head, but they remain there, clogged like sewage in a blocked sink. And so he rages, or curses, or sometimes lowers his head and weeps, or, to pass the time while the white noise of my mother’s words stretches off into faraway lands, he eats. Sometimes he comes out with a swear word that strikes the assembled children dumb and halts my mother’s aimless chirping in its track, as the shadow of a hawk frightens a bird. Then back he goes to his plate, using his knife, which he can still handle well enough, to make little piles of food and push them onto his fork, and then shoving the whole thing into his mouth. Bits of food ooze from the corners of his lips. As he well knows. He can feel the grease dripping down his chin and onto my mother’s spotless tablecloth. Of course it embarrasses him. He doesn’t enjoy behaving like a boor. He’s always been proud and haughty, like Caesar in the Asterix books. But in the moment between realizing he’s drooling and reaching for his napkin, my mother has already taken hers and wiped the gravy from his glistening chin.
Nothing makes sense to him anymore. He has words, he has thoughts, but no one hears them. He knows how to move his feet and hands, but he falls down or drops his glass. And so I sit to his left at every family meal, trying to anticipate his rages and his defeats. I prefer the rages. They tell me that the man I once knew, the man I do not love, still exists.