Friday, 9 June 2017

Book review: Nikki Gemmell, After (2017)

Euthanasia is a politically fraught subject but one that has resonance within the community. You can see how important some people view it by considering the work done by Andrew Denton last year. Denton was interviewed a lot following his researches but nothing has happened on the legislative front in Australia, probably because of the fact that we still have a conservative government in charge of the agenda. You can only wonder at what will happen when Labor gets back into power, as they will do in 2019.

Nikki Gemmell is both an author and a journalist and to write this book about her mother's unexpected suicide she puts on both hats. The journalist in her knows that there is a market in the community for a book on this subject. The author in her has very happily supplied the stylistic wherewithal to tackle such a personal incident.

Her impressionistic, spare style works well in this context, as the author takes the reader through all the stages of grief and reconciliation, from interviews with police - did anyone help Elayn to die? - to what to tell the children (Gemmell has four). Yes, there's a funeral as well. What the journalist also does is to get in touch with Philip Nitschke directly and talk with the founder of euthanasia group Exit International in order to help her understand her mother's actions. Nikki is grieving for the dead woman and she initially finds the idea of euthanasia abhorrent.

The book furthermore charts Elayn's own trajectory through life and talks about the relationship between mother and daughter, which was not always without bumps. The book finishes still cogitating these things but there seems to have been some sort of closure for the author in the end as she contemplates her mother's life. Gemmell also talks directly with a doctor - who contacted the author after Gemmell wrote a story for a newspaper which garnered a degree of attention - who had decided to take her own life. The issue of chronic pain is also discussed in some detail.

I found it easy to read this book but I wonder about the author's decision to eke it out near the finale. Some of those shards of prose might have been cut without impacting on the integrity of the whole, I thought. And I'm not entirely sure if the kintsugi trope works quite as effectively as the author might have wished. Nevertheless it's a satisfying and timely book which can provide many people with useful guidance. Those confronting chronic pain might take comfort that loved ones can reasonably accept what might at first seem inexcusable. For legislators, the book would be even more useful, helping them to understand why we need to change the law in Australia to allow people to exit life in a dignified manner at the time of their own choosing. Much of the emotional distress the book conveys could have been avoided if we had had the right legislative arrangements in place, as they already have in some countries.

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