Monday, 31 October 2016
"The Easy Way Out" Steven Amsterdam
Evan is a nurse, a suicide assistant. His job is legal . . . just. He's the one at the hospital who hands out the last drink to those who ask for it.
Evan's friends don't know what he does during the day. His mother, Viv, doesn't know what he's up to at night. And his supervisor suspects there may be trouble ahead.
As he helps one patient after another die, Evan pushes against legality, his own morality and the best intentions of those closest to him, discovering that his own path will be neither quick nor painless.
He knows what he has to do.
In this powerful novel, award-winning author Steven Amsterdam challenges readers to face the most taboo and heartbreaking of dilemmas. Would you help someone end their life?
"Death is where life gets really interesting."
Set in Australia, in the near future at a time when assisted suicide is legal, Amsterdam tackles a very emotive subject for his novel. I wanted to read this book as I wondered how the author would handle such a taboo and controversial subject in what appeared to be a more light and entertaining narrative voice than perhaps found in other titles which deal with terminal illness and suicide.
This is a brave novel for a brave reader. I think your reaction to this book could very much depend on where you are in life and what personal and emotional issues you may have surrounding the subject of illness and death. Having said that, although it is not a light read, there is a good balance between humour and seriousness. The writing is not oppressive or sentimental. It is not insensitive or offensive either. There is humour, quirkiness, bluntness and honesty which make it a novel hard to define but actually easier to engage with than one might think.
Whatever the reader feels about the subject matter, there is no denying that Amsterdam can write. I found some of his observations and images profound; understated yet very evocative and effective.
"The cancer ran through him like drain cleaner"
"This is the family picture: three hands and wrists woven together, each with a different purpose - the daughter grooming, the father pulling back in terminal retreat, the mother trying to protect them all."
"There we are, six white people fine tuning a death."
The book opens with us watching Evan carry out his job as a suicide assistant. As this is not something that happens legally in the UK, it was an alien experience for me to read about this in such normalised circumstances. I'm not sure whether the fact that it is not a "real life" relatable scenario for me actually made it easier to read as there was a sense of detachment -almost as if I was reading something set in an imagined future. I found the calm normality of the narrative voice effective in discussing what must be some of the most difficult and imaginable moments in someone's life. Evan's matter of fact, practical voice also helped to remove the potential emotional intensity and sensationalism from the scenes. In fact, he is trained to be emotionally detached, and pulled up on it by his boss Nettie several times. As the novel continues and Evan's role begins to invade his personal life as he watches his beloved mother's health deteriorate, it is this awareness that he's been trained to keep a level of detachment from death and terminal illness that creates dilemma, conflict and confusion.
There are several accounts of Evan's 'assists'. One of the most moving comes towards the end of the book with Leo aged ninety and his girlfriend, Myrna, aged eighty six. It is interesting how the characters who are 'attending' the 'assist' behave each time and what they expect from Evan as he tries to remain invisible and unobtrusive despite sharing possibly the most intimate moments of anyone's life. Amsterdam again shows that he can write with great poignancy.
"Two people watching the tide go out."
And then Myrna's repetition of "So simple and so beautiful. So simple," create an overwhelming sense of peace, resolution and calm. This book undoubtedly challenges the reader's perception of 'assisted suicide', whether it will change your mind at all is probably irrelevant. It's just offering a very different perspective and it's also interesting how Evan reflects and responds to his role as the novel continues. Evan's almost throwaway comments often present the reader with something quite thought provoking. For example, his reflection on how different people respond to death is presented with an emotional detachment not usually seen in stories dealing with final moments. Seeing it from a practical viewpoint of someone whose is helping someone to die, offers a different perspective from usual in which to observe characters and their behaviour.
"Will they sail past the news untouched or will it send them off in a new direction?"
Amsterdam injects a level of humour, modernity and contrast with the sub plot of Evan's personal life. His relationship with his mother is quite fascinating and written with a mixture of compassion and wry humour and then Evan's own romantic relationship with two other men as they operate as a "throuple." This really is a very contemporary novel, bursting with contemporary issues and written in a bold contemporary voice.
Towards the end of the book Evan reflects on his career. The metaphor of the rubbish men is very effective.
"a garbage truck notches its way through the middle of the street. The men run to collect the bins on opposite sides, empty them into the munching maw at the back......There may be easier jobs in this world."
This novel is interesting, quirky, shocking, modern and highly original. It took me a while to get to grips with Evan's voice and although I enjoyed his entertaining responses to friends as he tries to hide the reality of his day job, he is a complex character and perhaps a little of an acquired taste.
I am pleased that I read it but I am not completely sure how I would rate it or indeed feel about it. I think I would suggest you make your own mind up. Although thought provoking, emotive and controversial, Amsterdam's voice is also quirky and humorous. There is plenty of dialogue and it is a well paced novel. The relationships between the main characters is also unusual. It is a relatively short novel too, which is possibly necessary really because of the scenarios and dynamics explored within the book.
"The Easy Way Out" by Steven Amsterdam is published on Nov 3rd 2016.
Thank you to Netgalley for the advanced copy of the novel.
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