Appointment with death

6 May 2017

9:00 AM

6 May 2017

9:00 AM

It’s reassuring that of Ed Docx’s three admirably eclectic, though sometimes uneven, previous novels, Let Go My Hand most resembles the capacious, Booker long-listed Self-Help. Like that book, this is fiction with heft and moral nuance; a novel that gets its hands dirty in the soiled laundry basket of family secrets and resentments. As such, it’s his most universal, moving and resonant work to date.

Appropriately for a book whose title is taken from Gloucester’s impassioned command to Edgar in King Lear, the story begins at Dover, with the narrator Lou and his 71-year-old academic father Larry (‘one of the prophets of the new literary theory’), about to embark on a road trip in the VW camper van that served during many a fondly recalled childhood holiday. Only it quickly becomes clear that the irascible, mercurial Larry is suffering from motor neurone disease, and their destination is Dignitas in Zürich.

Spellbindingly evoked in the present continuous tense, the road trip that follows takes up the book’s entire length, with the vacillating Lou eventually joined by his feckless half-brothers, twins Ralph and Jack. It’s here that the secrets of the family’s turbulent past are revealed and painfully addressed, during a series of fractious meals and drinking bouts.

Docx clearly intends Larry to stand for all the impossible, egotistical fathers in literature, and his exchanges with his sons resemble mad old Karamazov’s skirmishes with the three rivalrous brothers. Sooner or later, the ‘deeper emotional calculus’ of what fathers inflict on their sons needs to be quantified, as well as the perils of the ‘combined family’. The book asks whether mixed blood will always be volatile; also whether a son can ever ‘see his father clearly’.

The journey allows the family to balance a ledger of mutually inflicted wounds, now that the patriarch’s life will definitely end, bringing unexpected elucidation: ‘You think your parents are a nightmare all your life until you have your own children, and then you realise it was the children who were the problem all along.’

Startlingly short on sentimentality, given its subject matter, and fluent and insightful, the book’s only flaws lie in the brothers’ witty jousting (which sometimes teeters into smart-arsed banter), and in the decision to make Lou less intelligent than his siblings. There’s no material gain from this; instead, a cognitive dissonance arises when Lou continually expresses himself in intelligent, eloquent sentences. Those sentences, of course, ultimately belong to Docx, and he deserves to win wider acclaim for this wise account of the throttled emotions of manhood, and of a family in terminal meltdown.

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