Zany goings-on in a seriocomic dystopia, “A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life” is also a pleasantly oddball exploration of second chances and chosen family.
Robert McGill (“Once We Had a Country”) opens his sprightly third novel in newly officially renamed Tkaronto, where “eighteen and nowhere” Regan has nearly given up on chasing happiness and trying to be a good person. In fact, she has decided that “living was not for her, maybe.” Elsewhere, her father’s a rehab disaster zone and her far-flung mother is saving the world.
Online, Regan has researched flatpacks as an easy, pleasantly hallucinatory death. Yes, flatpacks are illegal. Happily, there’s a thriving black market for them.
What’s a flatpack, you ask? An individual who has been infected with a fatal virus and opted for a kind of suspended animation that involves drained bodily fluids, a vacuum seal and other mysterious MacGuffin-y procedures.
A flaw in the process results in toxic off-gassing that’s sought by melancholic romantics like Regan. (It’s like succumbing while on laudanum, only futuristic.)
Death by flatpack, Regan’s “latest bag of crazy,” goes awry thanks to her cat. Soon, she’s staring at a couriered package of silvery skin wrapped in plastic. It – Ülle – awakens, struggles for words and pleads for “Mama.” Could it be that a caprice of fate has handed Regan renewed purpose?
Eventually two further deliveries multiply the complications.
Following that madcap setup, which showcases a deft hand at pacing, plot and the craft of judicious sentences, McGill introduces “Letter to Little One,” one of four chapters apparently spoken by a parent to his child.
These letters recount a bizarre origin story, about a woman – a poor, orphaned peasant from a “backwater village” barely getting by in an unnamed, lawless place devastated by “the worm” (which is called “the plague” in Tkaronto). The young woman, named Ülle, comes to work for a storied family, whose name, even in her remote village, is synonymous with shady dealings and brutal enforcement.
The crime family is ruled over by Mormor, a devout former shot-put national champion whose skin is dotted with injection marks from pink and purple liquid medication she takes for an illness that turns her sickly yellow and swollen like over-yeasted dough.
McGill’s account of Ülle’s arrival in Canada and her crazy quest with Regan and other flatpacked intimates from the old country defies quick description. Suffice it to say, McGill’s ease with action – breaks-in, car chases, narrow escapes – enlivens and sharpens the plot.
For readers who struggle with suspension of disbelief, “Companion” is not your novel. McGill’s not all that dedicated to the science of flatpacking or portraying an entire world in permanent emergency. A blurb for “A Suitable Companion” is similar to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” To my eye, her surreal, comical and occasionally right-off-the-rails “The Heart Goes Last” is the closer relationship.
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