Don’t worry about the blurb, just start reading. This is a clever and erudite read but accessible! Makes you feel like these whip-smart dark comics have packed you into a van with them and are taking you for a ride across northern Europe, letting you sit in on their banter, their arguments, their weird discussions. The story is told mostly by the dialogue between three men and their father: all of them perceptive and intelligent in that very English way that produces such fantastic stand up. Sure, the boys are taking their father to Dignitas, but it’s not a quiet journey. The boys are brought up to talk, and they do. Brilliantly.
Firstly it’s just Lou and his dad driving, but the two older boys enter the story in wonderful set pieces, Ralph is a free-living boho puppetteer who rescues a child from drowning and appears dripping with said child in time for breakfast champagne. His twin Jack has chosen another path: the chaos of wife and kids, including a flashback to the best bathtime-with-kids scene ever. This guy is funny. He bangs on the door of the van in the dark. The boys are from a first marriage and quite different: “Jack smiles a lot more easily than Ralph. He finds things funny-broad more than he finds things funny-deep.”
This is from Lou, our narrator, who is the younger half-sibling. His father abandoned the twins’ mother in a shambles when love-struck (and the intensity of this flows through the story: was it the right thing to do?), and Lou is the result of that deep love. Lou has a new love waiting back home and is gently discovering himself in her. He works in database management but has the soul of a poet. He is the one that looks after his dad’s physical needs as the old philosopher slides into motor neuron decline, and he is the one that summons the boys to guide them all through the journey to the end. Euthanasia is not a decision one man makes, but a process for the family.
Dad is a media man with a life of words and ideas and a deep love of the arts. His knowledge of European culture is full of awe and delight. As a family they frolic with words. Cliches are slammed. Swearing, after a life of abstinence, arrives in joyful abundance. The vocabulary is amazing. I’m stealing “ravening” which means hunting like a pack of wolves and is a good way to describe the way these men go after their father verbally.
“We’re calm. We’re cool. We’re camping. …Tacitly, we three have somehow agreed: there will be no more ravening today.”
But their father is the most eloquent of all and verbalises his end-of-life crises all the way to Zurich, going deep into what it means to be human while a kind of slapstick comedy is going on around him in great castles and the tiny camper van, excesses of alcohol, staggers around medieval churches and wheelchair races through Neolithic caves. There is an oversupply of mud drenched croissants. Everything goes on the credit card. What the hell.
Despite the approaching death, or perhaps because of it, the story is imbued with such intensity that the memories Lou is laying down are images that will stay with me for a long time.
“Dinner is to be served at this long table just inside the big open French windows looking out down a long path, which is lit with ankle-high solar lamps so it looks like a runway for errant nocturnal poultry. The room is beautiful in the way you’d hope a dining room to be beautiful in an old French chateau – tall ceilings, a pale blue stripe in the walls, elegant dark-wood furniture that dimly shines with the lustre of exotic suns entombed. There are tall candles and the tablecloth is ivory white like it was made long before the Revolution and hasn’t blushed since.”
As I say, don’t be put off by the theme and premise of this book. It’s just four men on a roadie. Stylish and funny and philosophical.