Palliative Squabbles

By Maughan, Phuip | New Statesman (1996), June 9, 2017 | Go to article overview

Palliative Squabbles


Maughan, Phuip, New Statesman (1996)


Let Go My Hand

Edward Docx

Picador, 432pp. 16.99 [pounds sterling]

It feels as though every other British novel these days begins with someone leaving Britain. All That Man Is by David Szalay commences when two young interrailers pull into Berlin Hauptbahnhof; Rachel Cusk's Outline opens with a flight to Greece; Ali Smith's Autumn features its protagonist, Elisabeth, painfully attempting to renew her passport, a totem of identity that has the dual function of allowing her to flee a bitter and conflicted homeland before it collapses into full-blown civil war.

Let Go My Hand, the fourth novel by the journalist and critic Edward Docx, begins at Dover ferry port as a father and son, Laurence and Louis, set off in the direction of Switzerland (like the UK, you might say), where Laurence has an appointment at Dignitas and intends to end his life (like the UK, you might say). But rather than a choice between liberal Europhilia and a "weatherproof expression of hurt righteousness" (to quote A A Gill), it is history that separates these two men.

Before being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, Laurence was an accomplished literary scholar, a self-reliant northern lad who could quote Milton or Shakespeare just as soon as fix a bust camper van roof. He is "the last of the war babies", representing an "old-school idea of masculinity" and the demise of the postwar consensus. In sum, he is Melvyn Bragg. What follows is a son whose intellectual aspirations are stunted by "the lack of ideas, the energy costs, the bad economics" of the present age, not to mention the "acute mental eczema" that renders Louis unable to concentrate "for more than twenty seconds" at a time.

As the pair travel overland, the novel asks what it is that can keep a family together, despite the bubbling "dark matter" of long-held grudges and resentments born of "all that living together". En route, they are surprised by Ralph and Jack, Laurence's children from an earlier marriage, two temperamentally opposed, middle-aged men who refuse to see themselves as anything other than children, irreparably damaged by their father's infidelity and abandonment of their mother.

They are basically overgrown babies unlike their baby brother, Louis, whose rapport with his father is almost too good to be believable. Ralph, the elder one, is a womanising puppeteer based in Berlin and Jack, the younger, is a north London family man who aims to block his father's dying wish: to die peacefully. …

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