I have a theory that there are two kinds of novelist, the intellectual type and the emotional type. The former seeks to impress while the latter aims to move. Smart writers are told that their work is clever; sensitive writers that theirs is poignant. I may have to reconsider my idea, however, having read Edward Docx’s fourth novel, which combines the best of both worlds.
Let Go My Hands is deeply philosophical at times, considering the question of whether we should be allowed to make profound decisions about our lives, even if those choices hurt the ones we love, while at the same time being an incredibly touching story of the tender and indestructible bond that exists between a father and his three sons.
Louis Lasker is 25 years old, a little lost but with a poet's soul, and thrown into the heart of an emotionally turbulent few days when he drives his irritating, irascible, erudite but completely beloved father from Dover, via ferry and across Europe, to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland where Lasker père has chosen to end his life following a diagnosis of motor neurone disease.
Varied and unpredictable
The novel is ostensibly about family but it is also very much concerned with friendships between men. In the early sections, Louis and his father travel alone but soon they are joined by Ralph, Louis’s older half-brother, and then by Jack, Ralph’s twin. These are not men who bond over football, nor do they try to upstage each other with details of their successes. Instead, their conversation is varied and unpredictable but mostly concerned with how we live our lives.
Jack adores his wife, Ralph is equally content in his promiscuity, Louis is young and in love for the first time, while their father left his first wife, causing her great pain, for a happy second marriage. They are each fascinated and confused by the choices the others have made.
There are many welcome surprises in this novel. One might expect four men who have known each other their entire lives to unburden themselves of decades-old wounds as they drive along, leading to some cathartic moment on the banks of a Zurich lake.
But no, although they hold the occasional gripe from years gone past, all four get along quite well and are not frightened of expressing their affection for each other. “All for one,” Ralph intones, a holdover from their youth when he and his twin embraced their 11-year younger half-sibling as one of their own despite the pain that his existence engendered in their own mother’s life. It’s refreshing. There’s not enough written about how families can actually like each other; it’s almost always about the traumas that cause them to fall apart.
While the brothers hold separate views on the rights and wrongs of assisted death, there is nothing polemical about the book. “If you’re going to be dead, you might as well be alive,” says one and this is very much the dying man’s philosophy as they continue their journey, enjoying simple pleasures: music, good food and, most importantly, each other’s company.
And while there is great humour in this novel and often some laugh-out-loud moments, there is pain there as well. When Mr Lasker suffers a fall and is brought by his children to a communal shower room, the image of the sons, naked with their elderly father as they do all they can to preserve his dignity, is constructed with great compassion, the novelist affording the dying man as much respect as his sons do. There is nothing gratuitous or indulgent about the suffering that appears on any of these pages.
Although there are almost no women in the book, we learn a little of Louis’s mother through memories. She was a poet, but “she would have liked to have written not just poetry, but a book: a grown-up love story. Not in the traditional way, though, but between a son and his father.”
That is essentially what Docx has done here. It’s a curious thing when a book about death can prove so life-affirming. It’s something to be admired.
John Boyne's latest novel is The Heart's Invisible Furies (Doubleday)