A Way around Death

  • Jeanette Lynes
    The Small Things that End the World. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Gilmour Walker
    Provoked by Gilgamesh: The Search for a Way Around Death. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Fiction has the incredible power to shed new light on contemporary life by reanimating stories of forgotten worlds. Gilmour Walker and Jeanette Lynes present us with characters who have complex relationships to the past and who journey to find a way around death.

In his epistolary collection, Provoked by Gilgamesh, Walker turns to The Epic of Gilgamesh, the four-thousand-year-old Sumerian epic of King Gilgamesh’s journey to discover eternal life after the death of his companion Enkidu—the same epic that inspired Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion. Throughout his letters, Walker contemplates his fear of death, specifically spiritual death caused by “the daily round, the sanctuary of ordered life, the numbing promise of the pension.” Prompted by the death of a close friend, Walker sets out from his home in rural Nova Scotia to visit Las Vegas, to see if he can “live frugally” along the Vegas strip and “exorcize his demons.” Walker addresses each of his letters not to Gilgamesh, but to Gilgamesh’s mother, Ninsun, an “old meddler” who has apparently “tampered” with his life by “playing fast and loose with the portents.” With a paranoid Oedipal tone, the collection flows as a series of reflections directed at the haunting Ninsun, but never quite in the narrative voice that we expect from a mother-son relationship. Instead, Walker slips into a philosophical, academic discourse to discuss the originality of his writing as well as his approach to life. The epic intertext is complemented by other literary allusions to death, ranging from Dante’s Inferno to Melville’s Moby-Dick, which frustrate the original editor of Walker’s manuscript, referred to as “Ed,” who in the footnotes seeks to rationalize the significance of each allusion. The Publisher’s Preface justifies the inclusion of these footnotes as an opportunity for readers to engage in a humorous but caustic textual commentary. Ed proves to be the most compelling voice throughout the collection precisely because his passionate response to Walker’s digressions actually proves his deep emotional investment in the collection as a whole. Yet Ed is right to suggest that we cannot entirely trust Walker’s sincerity; as Walker admits, “I am practically incapable of valuable reflection, of self-generated insight.” Whereas Gilgamesh, who wanders the wilderness, grief-stricken, “in the skin of a lion,” provides us with a raw spiritual journey, Walker is much more distant and philosophical. However, Walker does offer a creative, universal discourse on the nature of life and literature, one that does not offer easy answers.

Lynes’ novel confronts death through the gradual comfort of a makeshift family. The novel spans three generations and two natural disasters fifty years apart: Hurricane Hazel, which unexpectedly hit Toronto in 1954, and Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2004. Lynes’ story resembles Eric Walters’ 2009 novel Safe as Houses, which depicts a young babysitter faced with the sudden arrival of Hazel in the wealthy suburb of Weston. But Lynes takes her story further: the initial drama of the sudden flooding of Humber Green Drive lasts a mere fifty pages, shifting to the slow development of the mired relationship between Sadie and the orphaned Faith, the baby she fought to protect on her first and only night as babysitter. The novel’s central tension is Faith’s discovery, eighteen years later, that her five-year-old brother and parents were killed during the storm, and that Sadie is not her biological mother. Fleeing Sadie’s family farm and not returning until thirty years later to claim her runaway daughter, Amber, Faith finally forgives Sadie and promises to help salvage the farm from financial ruin; the three women conveniently reunite during the final pages as Hurricane Katrina wipes out Faith and Amber’s home in New Orleans. The novel’s strength is the sincerity of narrative voices: Sadie’s sense of duty early on is commendable, albeit naive, and the various divisions between the three women are occasionally frustrating but justified. Most importantly, Lynes explores a unique moral about the relationship between these women, who must learn to become a true family over time: “Some people you do just love right away . . . Others take much longer to love—they take a lifetime.” Lynes reminds her readers that the world may appear to end when an act of God destroys the most impressive house in an illustrious neighbourhood, but people will band together during moments of struggle to forge new families.

This review “A Way around Death” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 156-157.

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