Filler content with ordinary men

Another review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #42:-

DEATH OF AN ORDINARY MAN by GLEN DUNCAN

Scribner pb, 304pp, £6.99                                       

The man in question is Nathan Clark and the premise behind this story is both simple and devastatingly effective. Nathan finds himself attending his own funeral, with no idea of how he died. There are other gaps in his memory; he knows that his youngest daughter Lois is also dead, but has no memory of how her death occurred. People cannot see him, but Nathan can interact with them when close, picking up stray thoughts and reliving the incidents in his life that are closest to the surface of their minds, these in turn sparking other memories. And so he follows the family back to the house for the wake, gaining precious insights into the lives of the people he loved, slowly piecing together the story of his last few hours on earth and the events that preceded them.

At the heart of the story is Nathan’s understanding of his nearest and dearest, the discoveries he makes about who essentially these people are and how he helped to shape them, both good and bad. Wife Cheryl is the strong one, once a wannabe novelist, her great moment of triumph marred by personal tragedy, and now a ruthless businesswoman, determined to survive whatever life flings at her; Nathan always feared that she would leave him, and now he comes to see the truth of the matter, that although she had an affair with his best friend Adrian it was never anything more than sex. Daughter Gina has inherited her mother’s strength of character, using the funeral as a pretext to lose her virginity to her boyfriend and planning out her future with an air of practicality that is only displacement activity for grief, while son Luke is a bundle of neuroses, prone to kleptomania and fearful of other vices, haunted by the idea that his parents always preferred their daughters, a charge that Nathan grudgingly concedes holds an element of truth, accepting his own share of blame for what the boy has become, yet also coming to the recognition that both children have the necessary emotional equipment to go on and make something of their lives, for which he can happily take some of the credit. Nathan’s father Frank, now old and filled with self pity, worries that Cheryl won’t support him now her husband is dead. And lurking at back of it all, Banquo at the feast, is the terrible spectre of Lois, whose tragic fate was to haunt Nathan and cause his life to completely unravel.

This is a horror story in the ultimate and most profound sense of that word. It is a story about the things grief can do, about how it can tear a life and a family apart, about a father whose sense of his own identity, those things which define who he is, is completely undermined when he finds himself incapable of protecting those he loves, and even though we may realise where the book is going long before the end the shocks when they come are no less terrible to endure. Duncan is superb at finding just the right phrase to describe a feeling or a memory, to make an event live in the mind of the reader and illuminate it in some new and startling way. His characterisation is masterful throughout, giving us people who are multi- faceted and layered in ways that make the creations of so many of his contemporaries seem like cardboard cut outs. They interact realistically, showing us episodes fraught with emotion and peril, such as the pivotal scene where Nathan takes one of his dead daughter’s schoolmates to the house where the family used to live, his strange behaviour giving rise to a moment that is exquisitely balanced on a knife edge and with the sense that events could so easily twist either way, engendering feelings of pity and fear in both girl and reader. And yet for all the tragedy this is not, ultimately, a tragic book, as both Nathan and the Clark family realise it is time to make their peace with the past and move on, to accept what they cannot change, with the white light of redemption beckoning for both as the last pages are read.

Death of an Ordinary Man is a book that will haunt me, one that I want to read again along with everything else that Glen Duncan has ever written, and I strongly urge everyone else to go do the same.

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