NON-FICTION: NO TIME TO DIE

29 Dec 2019

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Over time, a kind of writing has developed that is cathartic in its exposé of what human beings really are and what they think. Some books that portray personal journeys of redemption and finding grace — such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air — have seen great success. Fiction, meanwhile, has explored many aspects of death, from afterlife redemption to what happens to the soul when someone is gone. What such fiction and memoirs bring to the reader is cathartic. For those readers who might be going through similar circumstances, such books offer solace with their honesty.

Time to Go is a book about dying. For those of us who are used to the Urdu culture of books on the theme of death, a joke about the end of life seems quite blasphemous. After all, when one has read certain books that portray the afterlife as a torture chamber administered by angels, it does become hard to even smile when a topic such as death is broached. But Time to Go brings to its reader a certain exhilaration of spirit, a tongue-in-cheek joke that not everyone understands. It is this light-heartedness about a topic as sombre as death that infuses Time to Go with a certain joie de vivre.

Written by British author Guy Kennaway, the book is a response to his mother Susie’s request for some heroin — to be used for killing herself if the business of living in old age became too much. It is not another story of coming to terms with one’s mortality and finding grace. In fact, much of the book is like a graceless romp that only a 60-year-old writer is capable of.

It is the kind of writing where memory and facts entwine to create a story. In the very telling of fact, the fabric of life is exposed which tells its own tale. What makes great fiction is the attention paid to craft and to story. What makes great writing is attention paid to honesty. Judged from this perspective, Time to Go is an excellent work: from being a portrait of a woman to offering insight about a mother/son relationship, it encompasses the joy of life that eventually morphs into old age.

A book that asks all the pertinent questions about euthanasia and more, but which is made special by its ability to make a joke at the expense of death

With the debates raging about euthanasia — when really is the right time to go — the right time to pass on is a question that may come into the minds of many. In his book, Kennaway doesn’t answer this question — and it is not a question which is easy to answer — but the book does shed light on a situation that has been neglected in the modern world. Mainly, that when people grow old and infirm, how long should they suffer through unspeakable disease, usually terminal, but gradual enough to suck all the joy and dignity out of life? Should the world provide these people with a solution — that to leave at will? Or should they continue to suffer till their time comes? In the latter case, time can become an entity that eventually strips all but the mere vestiges of life from a person. Still, the codes of society are such that one must wait till one’s time, even if kept alive only with the help of machines. And while all that disease takes its course, there are the big pharmaceutical companies fighting it every step of the way, never vanquishing the disease, but making enough revenues.

While Kennaway asks all these questions and more, what is special about Time to Go is its ability to make a joke at the expense of death. From dying with the help of a 3D printer to a medicine overdose, all avenues are discussed between mother and son. Some are rejected — because they pose a threat to the decor of the house; some are too farfetched to work; some are kept in mind as they might prove useful one day.

Secrets usually meant trouble with Susie. In our family, if you wanted to keep something quiet, Mum was most definitely not the word. And she was never usually interested in my opinion, or indeed anyone’s for that matter, unless it was an accurate reproduction of her own. I braced myself for trouble, as things were never straightforward with her. A request for a favour or the offer of a gift was usually part of some stratagem that only she knew the full extent of and which — when fully revealed — turned out to be a nasty surprise. — Excerpt from the book

At one point in the book, Kennaway’s mother asks him why he cannot write only the good things about her. To which he replies that that would take up barely a few lines. Mothers are such a force of nature and this book is no maudlin account of one. It is a fierce, independent woman that we encounter. Kennaway dreads having his reputation besmirched by her in the afterlife, so it is better to stay on the right side of this lady. This book is a testimony to the love existing between parents and children and how it affects each throughout life. Some of the strongest impressions on one are left by one’s parents, but one grows up, rebels and eventually makes one’s peace with them.

A thoroughly readable book in spite of its grim theme, somehow Time to Go makes the idea of passing on more bearable. The credit for that goes to the writer’s style. Kennaway never trivialises death, but then again, he never venerates it to an inconsolable status. Death happens, and scarred human beings move on. A time to go does come, and then so does time to heal, to start over, and to make new memories.

The reviewer is a bibliophile who lives in Lahore and hopes to publish children’s stories one day

Time to Go
By Guy Kennaway
Mensch, UK
ISBN: 978-1912914005
272pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 29th, 2019