Time To Go; by Guy Kennaway

Mensch Publishing: £14.99

Reviewer: Alan Taylor

IT was Woody Allen who spoke for most of humankind when he said, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” As we live ever longer thoughts of how we age and will ultimately die are uppermost in many minds. The idea of a prolonged incarceration in a soulless care home where daytime television is the sole intellectual stimulation is enough to have us Googling ‘Dignitas’ and requesting a brochure. We do not want to go dribbling and demented into that good night; we would much rather prefer to exit on our own terms without possibility of an episode of Pointless being the last thing we set eyes on.

But how to achieve this? This is the conundrum that hangs over Guy Kennaway’s Time To Go. To say his approach to the subject of assisted dying is unconventional and irreverent is rather to underestimate the degree to which he thumbs his nose at it. Of immediate concern to him is his octogenarian mother Susie. She wants to choose when she will die but when exactly to pull the plug? For her, as her son relates, it is when she can no longer go to the lavatory unaided. But are things so simple? “You hurt your hand, which was expected to heal in a couple of days, but during that time you couldn’t wipe your bottom. Hold on. There’s the line. Indeed, in three days, the hand is well enough to go to the loo on your own, and you probably smile as you wipe your bottom saying I’m actually quite glad I didn’t top myself.”

While you’re trying to erase that image from your mind, we need to talk about Susie. She is 88 and living in rural France with her second husband Stanley who is going on 90. Her first husband was the novelist James Kennaway, best known for the novel Tunes of Glory, who died aged 40 in 1968 leaving Susie to bring up four children. As portrayed by Guy, she is a feisty, uncompromising dame. By his admission, they have not always been on the best of terms and relations have not improved as they get older. She has a long memory for slights and can remember how half a century earlier she had been placed in the wrong seat at lunch. “She was pickled in resentments,” writes 60-year-old Guy, “though it had a deceptively sweet taste to those who didn’t know the ingredients.”

Their differences apart, he is a dutiful son and he sets out to explore how his mother might do away with herself. The zest with which he goes about this may have some readers worrying about his motives. I kept thinking of Patricia Highsmith’s killer for hire, Ripley. Kennaway's investigations into how best to help Susie shuffle off lead him up blind alleys and down roads less travelled, almost all highly amusing. One example; there is apparently a group of elderly Americans who have made a musical about their efforts to design their own coffins.

Where stands Stanley in all of this? He, we learn, was an accountant to celebrities whose names he never mentions. His philosophy of life is “positive drift”, which involves leaving as little mark on the planet as possible. He is expert at making model ships and planes and drinks G&T as if it comes out of a tap. Old age has not extinguished his libido. One day Kennaway catches him watching the women’s doubles at Wimbledon through binoculars. “I’m just checking the score,” he explained.

The picture Kennaway paints is of a devoted couple wrestling with the inevitable. When Stanley has what looks like a stroke Susie refuses to believe it. “Who’s the prime minister?” she asks him. “Snow,” he replies, which Susie takes as a bizarre sign that he’s okay. In this theatre of the absurd Kennaway gives up smoking pot and starts taking tramadol, a powerful painkiller that Susie has bought on the internet in readiness for the moment when she can’t get to the toilet without help.

Unwisely, Kennaway tells his mother he is writing a book about her and allows her to read the manuscript. Brave man that he is, he then allows her an extended right of reply which he throws into the mix. “Obviously,” she writes, “I could bring a successful action against him for defamation, slander and probably identity theft so ridiculously inaccurate is his portrayal of me and dear Stanley.” Susie, it would appear, is not ready to shuffle off any time soon which is cheering. We need more people like her and Stanley. The same may be said of Guy Kennaway who has written the funniest, sickest, most moving and provocative book about dying you are likely to read before you-know-who comes calling.