In this novel, Cath Staincliffe tackles the controversial subject of mercy killings. After 25 years of a strong and happy marriage and raising two children to adulthood, Deborah’s husband Neil is diagnosed with motor neuron disease, a cruel and fatal condition for which there is no cure. Afraid of dying an undignified and slow death, Neil asks Deborah the unthinkable – would she assist him in his suicide before his suffering becomes too great? When Deborah reluctantly gives in to her husband’s wishes, she finds herself on trial for murder, with her own daughter as witness against her.
Whilst I admired the author for her honest approach to this difficult subject, I found it very difficult to fully understand Deborah’s feelings and motivations. Despite brief descriptions of her difficult relationship with her deceased mother, and the grief she is still carrying from the death of her father as a child, Deborah’s feelings about her husband’s decline did not become fully apparent to me. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one to a terrible illness knows the feelings of helplessness of seeing them suffer and being unable to help. Yet I did not get this sense from Deborah. Whilst she briefly describes her anger at Neil’s diagnosis and being torn by his request to help him die, Deborah’s emotions on witnessing her husband’s decline remained a bit of an enigma to me – possibly due to the fact that the reader never got a full insight into the day-to-day trials and tribulations of Neil’s life with the disease. So whilst the novel prompted me to try to imagine what I would do in similar circumstances (which presents a terrible moral and ethical dilemma), I was never able to really understand what changed Deborah’s mind in the end and led her to do what she did.
All in all, for me the book never lived up to its full potential. To fully grasp the depth of the dilemma Deborah found herself in, I would have liked to get a better grasp on her character and feelings as well as her husband Neil’s. In the absence of fully understanding Neil’s suffering, his plea to Deborah to assist him to die whilst he is still able to have some quality of life does not fully gel with the family man he is portrayed as being. Neil clearly loves his family, and yet apparently does not think about the effect his death will have on them – let alone for the legal implications for his wife was she ever found out. By exploring the characters more the author could have answered these questions and made the story more compelling and closer to the reader’s heart.