After the (relatively) cheery subjects of my last few posts (plague, experiments on group dynamics, the history of the American West) I’m back to reading books about aging and death. Not horror story death – no ghosts, zombies or monsters – but the reality of people getting older, getting ill, wanting to die. I guess this may not be everyone’s idea of a good plot for a novel but Steven Amsterdam has succeeded in making this story not only eminently readable but also, at times, really funny. Not that he makes light of the subject, or jokes about it, but the language used, the way of describing people and situations, has a real lightness of touch which made me smile often and even laugh occasionally.
Evan is a nurse who works in an Australian hospital assisting those who have chosen to die. Interestingly the author is a palliative care nurse himself (and at least one state in Australia did legalise euthanasia briefly in the mid 90s) so I would assume he has met many people whose situations are like those shown in this story. He certainly writes about those who are driven, by illness and age, to seek to end their life with, on the whole, decency and respect. Evan’s relationships – with his rather forceful mother who is struggling with a degenerative illness herself, with colleagues at the hospital he works at and with a gay couple he is in a relationship with – are gone into in detail (the sex scenes may be a little graphic for some): I felt I knew Evan pretty well by the end.
The morality of assisted dying is considered by various people throughout the story – Evan doesn’t tell his lovers what his job is in any detail as he knows they wouldn’t approve – but those who choose it are treated as individuals. Evan, due to his fairly strange relationship with his mother and his father’s death (through suicide) in his childhood, seems to be a fairly detached sort of person. However, a large part of his job involves making sure that he maintains an emotional detachment from his patients so it is interesting to see how he copes with this. His struggles to do his job within the official protocols, however, is more about his wish to be in control of the situation – it is only when he has to come to terms with his mum, Viv’s, deteriorating condition that he gives way emotionally.
I am lucky enough that I have never personally had to deal with any close family member or friend who is ill enough to want euthanasia. Although I like to think that I would respect their wishes I really don’t know how I would react in reality but I think this book has given me plenty to think about.