Louis’s father, Larry, has decided to end his own life. Now entering the latter stages of motor neurone disease, he has persuaded Louis, the youngest of his three grown-up sons, to accompany him to Switzerland so he can access assisted suicide at Dignitas. Louis is the product of a second marriage; while he loves his two older brothers, Ralph and Jack, there has always been a slight crack between them because they all know that their father left Ralph and Jack’s mother for Louis’s. Louis’s youngest-sibling agreeableness, flexibility and unselfishness are therefore magnified; while his brothers squabble with each other and with their father, he tries to get along with everyone. So, then, it seems inevitable that he’s the one driving his father on his final journey, much as he wishes his dad would change his mind.
Let Go My Hand is an incredible novel, heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time. While I admired the other two Edward Docx books I’ve read, Self Help and The Devil’s Garden, they both left me rather emotionally cold. Not so Let Go My Hand, which frequently had me holding back tears. Docx nails the complicated interplay of rivalries, in-jokes and grudges between three adult sons and their father. Even more impressively, he does this while relying on virtually no backstory; what information we have tends to be conveyed through conversation rather than through flashbacks, and yet we always feel the weight of forty or more years ballasting these characters, even though we only see their present-day selves. Given this brilliantly skilful writing, a mysterious audio tape that pops up here and there feels unnecessarily tantalising – Docx’s climax would have been just as satisfying without the use of this thriller-esque device. But this is a minor flaw.
It’s impossible to convey just how good Docx’s writing is without quoting it. Let Go My Hand deals with grim subject-matter, but it’s also seriously uplifting. Docx packs the novel with brilliant banter; from the early scene when a young Louis insists on interrupting his older brother Ralph having sex because he needs to get a copy of a poem from his room for a party reading (“No man should ever get out of bed with a woman to placate another man, Lou… Oscar Wilde said that.”/”Oscar Wilde was gay.”) to four-way road-trip repartee between the sons and their father. Yet there’s great depth here as well as masculine wit. Near the end of the novel, Larry finally tells Louis exactly why he’s travelled to Dignitas, and how to make the most of a healthy life while he still can:
‘You spend your thirties thinking that it’s only you and they’re all doing fine… But then it hits you – in your forties – it hits you that most people are going quietly mad inside themselves… And… you start to relax again. You do. You start to think… Why didn’t they tell me? The bastards. And you know what that is? That’s your fifties, Lou… The way out of the mid-life crisis turns out to be the realisation that life is one long crisis… And then what happens?… I’ll tell you what happens… Just as you’ve worked out how best to live, you are betrayed by your own bloody body… And you can’t do all those things you realised you should have done… because it’s all about your body from now on. In fact, it has been all about your body all along – if only you had noticed… And that’s your sixties – right there. The realisation that you have about twenty minutes left to live in the way that you’ve finally – finally – understood is right.’
Meg Fee is still at the beginning of Larry’s journey. Her memoir, Places I Stopped On The Way Home: A Memoir of Chaos and Grace, focuses on how she survived the twelve years she spent in New York between the ages of eighteen and thirty, three of which are ‘missing’ from her memory due to a traumatic eating disorder. Fee doesn’t say a great deal about that; instead, this collection of short personal essays is focused on her search for love, and a series of very temporary men who drift through her life. (The men are so temporary, in fact, that I kept on confusing them with each other; it’s the women that Fee clashes with, like her ‘cruel’ flatmate Caroline, who stand out more vividly). As I’d just finished Let Go My Hand when I started this, it struggled to hold up; Fee’s observations felt banal compared to Docx’s grapplings. As Rebecca notes, some of the sentences sound ridiculous, and I similarly wonder if this book would work better for a younger reader (I’m pretty much exactly Fee’s age and I felt like I’d heard a lot of this before, especially the cliche that you feel so much more confident at thirty than you do during your twenties – I basically agree, but as I’ve heard the same claim made for forty and fifty (as in Let Go My Hand), it hardly feels like a universal truth). The book is organised around New York streets, landmarks and locations, and yet I didn’t really feel that Fee’s experiences were so tightly linked to this place other than the fact that they happened there.
Nevertheless, this hit-and-miss writing sometimes finds its mark, and there were little bits in Places I Stopped On The Way Home that I lingered over. Fee writes about Will, who she fell in love with at the beginning of her university years: ‘I may not love him any more, but goodness am I thankful for him. Because the thing about falling in love at eighteen and being able to say, so many years later, Yes, it was love, is that it creates a specific point of reference – a baseline of what to expect and what to demand, an understanding of what the whole damn mess feels like’. We’re issued as teenagers with the idea that we have to find someone to love, and as Fee notes, without experience of what it feels like to love someone, this quest can become completely mechanical, more about fitting in with peers and ticking off life milestones than actually having an honest relationship. Fee is also good on how we waste our time on relationships we know aren’t working from the start: ‘that small tug of the gut that says, Move on, you know better.’ I imagine that many readers will find lines in this book that they think are completely banal, and other lines that seem meaningful, and that they’re unlikely to be the same lines; Fee’s fuzzy prose lends itself to this.
I’m a bit further behind with my 20 Books of Summer reviews than with the reading itself – I’m currently reading #11, #12 and #13. I’ve also decided to swap in Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry in place of Johanna Skibsrud’s Tiger, Tiger, which unfortunately seems impossible to get hold of in the UK.