by Askold Melnyczuk; St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 2008, 253 pages, $16
Dr. Crandell is staff psychiatrist and acting director, Iina' Counseling Services, Indian Health Service, Northern Navajo Medical Center, Shiprock, New Mexico.
In his third novel, author Askold Melnyczuk presents us with the primal themes of love and death as closely entwined as two strands of literary DNA. On one level the reader is presented with the narrator's first-person odyssey to try to understand his father's death. After he declines his father's offered gun, hence rejecting patricide, he then witnesses his father's suicide with the same gun. On another level the reader is invited to consider sex and intimacy cloaked in the "syntax of deceit," as the tale is freighted with a cast of characters from New England to Kiev who are often in surprising relationships with one another, some of them involved in the international sex trade. However, the book remains markedly unsentimental in its treatment of relationships, both familial and intimate.
The book is an explicit critique of the failure of Americans to fully live in the present, as the protagonist's grandmother tells him, "There's a freedom you've never known … [L]iving in the moment without insurance policies or laws nibbling away at you. You people plan for death right from the start." In another passage a character named Kij says, "These things leave a mark. … In the charmed circle of your America people will soon live hundreds of years. … This is the outer dark; here we survive however we can." This 25-year-old American is struggling not only with his father's death but also with the power of history itself and what it means to be a young man in a young country, confronting Europe's formidable history of thousands of years.
Woven darkly throughout the novel, the central question remains: how to account for the suicide of a loved one, particularly of one's father. Poet Ted Hughes makes a brief allusive appearance, "Two suicides for wives. Quite a record. And me just one dad." The narrator opines, "The children of suicides do not necessarily repeat their father's mistakes. Sometimes they let others do it for them." We often encounter patients who survive as relatives of those who have committed suicide, and this is a novelistic portrayal of the search for meaning and attempted individuation within the penumbra of a completed suicide. Clinicians will find much to ponder in this novel with its several interwoven themes of fraternal betrayal, paternal suicide, and the search for self.
The reviewer reports no competing interests.