Books

Steven Amsterdam
The Easy Way Out

Steven Amsterdam’s third novel follows the model of the first two. Like Things We Didn’t See Coming and What the Family Needed, The Easy Way Out is a realist narrative set in a recognisable world that is skewed only slightly by a speculative premise.

The premise here is that assisted suicide is legal. In a fictional hospital in an unnamed Australian city, “dying assistant” Evan helps terminally ill patients end their own lives. This conceit draws on Amsterdam’s experience as a palliative care nurse. As he explains in the acknowledgements, it was fielding the requests of patients seeking to “speed things up” that led him to imagine a scenario where this was possible.

It’s a plausible scenario. “Measure 961” allows for assisted suicide under strict conditions. Only cognisant, terminally ill patients qualify and the protocols are exacting. Everything is filmed and consent is scripted. If a patient wanders off script or cannot administer the Nembutal themselves, it doesn’t proceed.

Why Evan is driven to do this work is clear from the outset. He feels the need to help people during the last moments of their lives, to be with them, because he couldn’t help or be with his father, who committed suicide when he was young. When Evan is forced to leave the hospital, this impulse leads him into dangerous territory with a group that works outside the system, and in murkier ethical terrain.

Amsterdam saves The Easy Way Out from being an exhausting series of assisted suicides through humour. This is provided by the patients, who are well drawn and not defined by their illnesses; by Evan, who is a wry narrator; and by Evan’s inimitable mother, Viv.

Viv suffers from Parkinson’s, but when she gets a reprieve from the illness via a new implant she does everything she can to stay out of her nursing home. Restored to her former self, she resumes being a couple of steps ahead of everyone else, Evan included. When he calls her Mum she says, “Stop calling me that, it’s manipulative.” In fact, Viv is so unpredictable, and brings to the narrative such energy, that the sections without her feel bereft of her presence.

If all The Easy Way Out had going for it was Viv, this would be a cathartic work for any reader with a loved one in a nursing home. But Amsterdam approaches all his creations with the same care and has crafted a deeply empathetic novel.  SH

Hachette, 272pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 24, 2016 as "Steven Amsterdam, The Easy Way Out ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: SH

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