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Monday, October 10, 2011

Practically Side-Splitting

After hearing so many great things about Trevor Cole's Practical Jean, I finally gave it a read.

I mean, it won the 2011 Stephen Leacock Medal for humour, I had heard him interviewed several times on a couple of great CBC radio programs and Cole was also writer in residence at McMaster a few years ago, likely had been working on this novel while he was haunting the halls of the Department of English and Cultural Studies and helping local writers with their own projects.

This book had long been on my "to read" list but I still hadn't picked it up. I finally ended up reading the NetGalley version of the book on my ereader - this was in anticipation of the Harper Collins US release of the book. (In Canada, the book is published by Mclelland & Stewart - a subsidiary of Random House Canada)

Harper Collins US cover
I kind of prefer the Canadian cover for the book (below), which seems to properly capture the feel for the hilarious superimposition of Jean's "traditional housewife" character with the morbidity of the story - and yes, it's these two elements so masterfully meshed together, which make the novel such a great read.

M&S Canadian cover
In a nutshell, the novel concerns itself with a middle aged relatively bland woman living her bland suburban life in a small town. When she loses her mother, realizing how completely helpless she is to do anything to either save her or prevent her suffering, she decides to do all of her loved ones a favour by ensuring they experience a great moment of happiness before killing them; in essence preventing them from the kind of horrible suffering that her mother experienced.

There is a beautiful flashback scene to Jean as a little girl being forced by her mother to practice euthanasia on a pack of puppies which helps paint for the reader how Jean's view of the world can be painted.

Cole brilliantly pulls off this morbid tale of a house-wife gone mad and beginning a serial-killer string of activities. The novel is, at once disturbing and hilarious. There is a fine balance kept whereby the dark humour doesn't overshadow the story and characters, nor do the graphic scenes of murder detract from the emotional plunge Jean is going through.

It is both amazing and disturbing to see the woman justify her every action, to ensure that her plan is practical and generous; to see how she is sacrificing so much of her own life and her own needs in order to do the best she can be the people she loves most.

So, while the novel is filled to the brim with a morbid humour, Cole manages to pull back, just enough and at the right times, to illustrate a main character whom we can empathize with. And yet, at the same time, we offer a guilty chuckle at her exploits. We want to laugh at her but also cry in her pain.

This is a masterfully executed story and novel that, so many times could have devolved into a schlocky over-the-top series of dark humour jokes; but Cole demonstrates the precise skill of a surgeon in terms of being able to steer the prose, story and Jean's very character away from that path at exactly the right moments.

1 comment:

Laura from Canada said...

I loved this book and you nailed it. Cole could have made this a very over-the-top portrayal of a woman gone mad but he was so even and deft in his touch. You could tell that, as a writer, he really cared about Jean and the fate she chose, and whether you agreed with what she did or not, you ended up caring for her despite her actions. That's tough wire to balance your book on but he did it well.