Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Three decades of life promise a quarter-life crisis: your 20s are on their way into your 30s, you’re forced to reflect and look back, and, too often, to ignore what you have done and instead panic over all the things you haven’t. The characters in Thomas Maloney’s Learning to Die embody this tender point, thrown in at the big 30 mark, all wondering in one way or another if it is too late to reconsider life.
Trader Mike has secured a high-flying career and identifies as the rocket Jesus of finance, but, as a blow for his hubris, faces a fall from grace. Elsewhere James is still waiting for someone to realise his literary genius – made all the more difficult by the fact that he is also waiting for inspiration to hit and to write anything at all. In the Scottish wilderness, Brenda roams the mountains, chops trees as a job, enjoys both the physical and social remoteness, and runs away from her social anxieties. Natalie wonders how choices to accommodate her husband’s career turned her life into a big plan B; the husband, Dan. realises that for him there won’t be any plan Bs and that 30, in fact, is too late to reconsider. Instead of plans for the future, he is hit with an ALS diagnosis and not long to live.
Maloney weaves these threads together so that the cast of five is cleverly connected both through coincidence and surprise histories thrown at the reader; what unfolds is how five strangers-turned-acquaintances are forced to learn to die and to face death.
As such, the novel does not have the cheeriest of premises: it’s all about lives in crises, some of them cut brutally very short. I’d feared that there would be an attempt to offer a big moral of the story, where the five, united by illness, realise what is actually important in life and adopt a healthily wholesome and appreciative outlook; Mike might throw away his materialistic ideals and Natalie might understand what true love and selflessness mean. But, at the risk of delivering a spoiler, none of that happens, for Maloney does not moralise, and the characters are far too complex to fall for clichés. Nor are there any clichés in how Maloney treads the minefield of big themes – love, death, values in life, and struggling artists. He writes about everything on a breath-taking continuum from humorous to brutally realist, being solidly unapologetic about the characters’ less savoury thoughts and actions. This all makes Learning to Die one of those reads that alternates between breaking your heart, annoying you, and eliciting the occasional smile, before launching you back into holding back tears.
The roller-coaster of emotion is not driven by events, though: Learning to Die not an action-packed novel. Maloney’s debut, The Sacred Combe (reviewed by Victoria here), was characterised as a novel of description, with the text lingering on surroundings and people. Maloney is in no rush here, either. The reader is treated to long shots of rugged scenery and a sense of physicality on Brenda’s mountain runs, as well as all the psychological detail of Mike’s self-satisfied finance high-flying. But this descriptiveness provides a particularly powerful effect when it comes to Dan. It is as if the narration slows down in sync with Dan losing the control of his body, and with that the reader is catapulted into a suffocating, heart-felt simulation of waiting for death.
There is an extra layer to the novel that stems from quotes from Montaigne at the start of each chapter: the story that unfolds takes on a sense of calm determinism when Montaigne ponders that “if you do not know how to die, never mind. Nature will give you full and adequate instruction on the spot.” So, as much as the theme can be suffocating, the novel offers respite as well. It’s not that Maloney needs help from Montaigne, though: the novel has enough Renassaince genius to it without any aids.
Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.
Thomas Maloney, Learning to Die (Scribe, 2018). 978-1911344308, 288pp., paperback original..
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