Ivo was born into a loving family but, after his father died when he was only six, he’s always had difficulty avoiding the influence of the wrong kind of friends. An insulin-dependent diabetic from his late teens, like some other young people with the condition, he doesn’t always attend sufficiently to his self-care. On top of this, there’s Malachy, his best friend from school and his elder sister’s partner, tempting him to sample a cornucopia of drug-fuelled highs. As Ivo’s condition worsens, and the hospice staff recommend morphine for the management of this pain, he becomes increasingly anxious about the prospect of a visit from Malachy from whom he’s become estranged.
This is the other side of Rachel Joyce’s bestselling debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which an older man sets out on foot to try to reach the bedside of a former colleague and friend before she dies. Not having read that, I thought I might be disadvantaged, but the chatter of the hospice patients and staff ensured I was aware of his improbable 600 mile journey and its slow progress across the book. While I enjoyed the unfolding account of Queenie’s life, and her chaste romance with Harold (reminiscent of the popular movie, Brief Encounter, from the days of black-and-white), as well as the hints of betrayal, I was probably more excited about her subsequent years in an isolated wooden bungalow amongst the dunes on Embleton Bay, which I used to pass on one of my favourite walks when I lived up that way. Although I was underwhelmed by the hospice sections, which I found neither convincing nor particularly funny, the marvellous ending cast a different slant on the journey I’d taken with Queenie, cancelling out the limitations I’d felt along the way. Thanks to Curtis Brown book group for my copy of The Love Song, published by Doubleday last year.
As the discussion on my right to die post testifies, how we die is an interesting topic both in and out of fiction, and the working with dying people can be an emotional challenge. A hospice has a unique atmosphere, part hospital, part church hall which, in the right hands, is ripe for dark humour. It’s also the perfect setting for a life-review novel, the tension building as we wonder if our hero will achieve their goal before the ultimate deadline. In addition, physical pain, as well as the morphine that might be used to alleviate it, plays havoc with one’s thought processes, creating unreliable narrators par excellence.
I was interested in the similarities and differences between these fictionalised hospices. While James Hannah’s seems particularly understaffed, Rachel Joyce’s swarms with nuns who have so little to do they can pass the time doing jigsaw puzzles. While people die (as you’d expect) in both institutions, in the first it’s as if the patients have already said goodbye to the world (or, to be fair, Ivo has) and rarely appear outside their rooms. In the second, on the other hand, there are daily excursions to the communal area where they trade quips and insults, and catch up on Harold Fry’s trek, or sleep, as if in a nursing home with years ahead of them. They even have a visit from the “counselling unit”, a woman dressed head to toe in purple, who is even less equipped to address their anxieties about death than the regular staff. While neither of these totally matched my own (albeit limited) impressions of such places, it was fun to visit for a while.
Have you read any hospice fiction? Would the topic interest you?