canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


A Fit Month for Dying
by M.T. Dohaney
Goose Lane Editions, 2000 

Reviewed by Nathan Whitlock

A Fit Month for Dying is a novel that telegraphs its intentions on the first page: Tess, the bookís middle-aged narrator, begins her story by recounting a prophecy made by her late grandmother, Bertha: "Yes, my dear," she would say ominously, rubbing her thumb and fingers together as if she were sprinkling turnip seed over freshly dampened soil, "if yer born upon this Rock, sooner or later lifeíll break the heart of ye. Itíll break the heart of ye into pieces smaller than the putty mounds of a tinkerís dam." 

If the gloomy grandmother is not enough to order on the itchy Sunday clothes, then certainly the resolutely anachronistic imagery lets the reader know that what follows is not some postmodern monkeyshine. No siree, A Fit Month for Dying is as decadent as an unvarnished pew, and if, by god, it ever catches you smirking or playing the fool, it will be sure to send one helluva dark plot twist yer way. The novel has a pathological need to fulfill Berthaís prophecy, shunting from heartbreak to heartbreak with nary a break in the clouds.

The novel begins with a good old-fashioned death-watch. In fiction, characters often suffer slow deaths from causes no more natural than their authorís need to get a bunch of other characters together in a room for a while, so that they may reveal themselves. In this case, certain dark secrets are hinted at while an elderly father-in-law wheezes his last in the next room. Just in case the hinting is missed, Dohaney later has a character express his concern for the secret-bearer thus: "Iím worried about that fellow... I wish heíd open up. I get the feeling heís keeping something from me. I get the feeling thereís something tormenting him." 

This should also give a sense of the relative sensitivity of Dohaneyís ear for dialogue: all of her characters speak in a peculiar English dialect - all sentences are delivered complete and phatic-free - rarely heard off the stage of a high school auditorium.

A Fit Month for Dying is the third installment of a trilogy, so Dohaney has the unenviable task of filling in some of the background for those readers who, like me, have not read the previous two volumes. This she does with varying degrees of efficiency. She does it most clumsily by occasionally having a character break off in the middle of a sentence to give some parenthetical information that should be well known to the person she is addressing: "When we moved into the Cove in the early sixties because the government uprooted us from our own place and this was the closest I wanted to live to St. Johnís, you had already left." Whew!

The middle section of the novel is taken up by Tessís search for her long-absent father, an American Naval engineer who married her mother, then disappeared before Tess was born when he was revealed to be a bigamist. The notion of this search arises suddenly, with little connection to the lengthy death-watch that precedes it. Indeed, Tessís father is only mentioned on page 78 - by page 108, with another hundred and five left to go in the book, he and Tess have already met, separated again, and have been given a limited form of redemption. For a figure that has haunted her all her life, thirty pages seems a bit stingy for the all-important healing process.

With her father out of the way, Tess - and the novel - is free to focus on her twelve-year-old son, Brendan, who has been mentioned only in passing so far. That he suddenly becomes the focal point of the novelís last third is the most glaring example of the plotís imbalance. The nasty chain of events that occur feel all the more nasty for having come out of nowhere, both emotionally and narratively. 

Though the tragedy that occurs is related to the dark secret hinted at in the first section, the relationship is almost coincidental. The rendering of this tragedy is alright: Brendan is repeatedly molested by a priest, and then, unable to bear the shame, shoots himself with his grandfatherís rifle - is actually made offensive by the naked manipulation that Dohaney attempts. The boy dies for very little; sacrificed, perhaps, so that Dohaney can make her novel span the requisite three generations.

A Fit Month for Dyingís plot structure seems to have been developed to allow the maximum amount of heartbreak, with only some minor stitching together of what are essentially three novellas. Dohaney re lies on the emotive power of the bookís scenarios to carry the weight of the book, with little thought to how all of these scenarios fit together other - hoping, I guess, that the reader will be too busy blinking away tears to notice. 

Most genre fiction exhibits a similar neglect of structure in favour of the genre-specific moneyshots. A novel aspiring to the status of serious literary fiction, however, has the obligation to absorb at least some of the stringent, prose-so-taut-as-to-seem-inevitable lessons of Flaubertís Madame Bovary. (I apologize if that sounds like a reactionary kind of classicism; however; there are relatively few writers who have chucked out Flaubert entirely whose work does not now, or will mercilessly soon, appear dated and slushy, like bad psychedelic rock.)

In the end, neither the Rock nor A Fit Month for Dying succeeded in breaking my heart, though they did send me running into the arms of the first fun-looking, well-put-together novel I could find.

Nathan Whitlock's short fiction won the TWUC 2000 Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers and was short-listed in THIS Magazine's "Great Canadian Literary Hunt" 2000. He lives in Toronto. (nathan_whitlock@hotmail.com)

 

 

 

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