A novel about a son coming to terms with his father’s terminal illness will sound like a depressing tearjerker to most potential readers, but the poetically flowing prose of Gil Courtemanche’s A Good Death avoids all the usual emotional clichés common to novels about aging and euthanasia. Instead, it presents a deeply introspective story about dealing with life. The narrator, André, is the oldest of 10 children trying to cope with their father’s decline due to Parkinson’s disease, and the impact his illness is having on their otherwise healthy mother. The story is beautifully told, though Courtemanche’s style can be jarring; he uses a minimum of conventional dialogue, and is more prone to transcribing monologues or sketching out philosophical quandaries.
The majority of the events take place over the course of the family’s Christmas dinner, where Andre is forced to confront the emotionally and sometimes physically abusive parent he has never loved, a man who has always been the family’s tyrant, but is becoming increasingly helpless. Other characters are largely depicted as Andre’s father sees them, as one-dimensional beings defined entirely by their professions or philosophical outlook.
But the few characters Courtemanche does develop serve as launching points for discussions on the nature of childhood, the role of parents, and the way people view death differently at different times. The notes are likely to strike home for those who have wished they could forget about an old grudge, or have seen an infirm, elderly person and prayed to die young.
Fatty food is the mechanism André’s Quebecois father chooses for his assisted suicide, and the pages of A Good Death are filled with mouthwatering descriptions of pâtés and cheese dishes, including an entire detailed recipe. But while goose and calf’s liver is the book’s vice of choice, its story teaches the more universal lesson that you shouldn’t try to put off death if it means abandoning the things that make you feel alive.