In a dusty, cluttered Manhattan apartment overlooking the Hudson River, an old married couple, Jacob and Beryl, bicker and nag at each other as they live out uneventful days of bickering and nagging. Then Jacob has a stroke, and their lives are never the same again. Instead, Jacob, Beryl, and their only son, Russell, are forced to confront new circumstances.
A home carer moves in, Jacob becomes deeply depressed, and the family must ask themselves some tough, existential questions: What makes life worth living, and has one ever the right to call it quits? And if someone needs help to die, is the person who helps a compassionate deliverer, or just a murderer?
Leon Arden's rich novel, A Walk to the Paradise Garden, examines all these questions with a deft touch and a pitch-perfect ear for the minutiae of daily life. Jacob and Beryl's conversations -- the same ones they've had with one another for more than half a century -- are banal and repetitious, as Russell notes with impatience whenever he is forced to make his visits back home. These conversations are so perfectly drawn, you might think you've overheard the pair yourself, in a New York diner somewhere, squabbling about the salt. It's his observational skills that enable Arden to transform what could have been a depressing discourse on failing strength and oncoming mortality into a touching and surprisingly funny family tale. Its major accomplishment is to show how, in the smallest of lives, there is room for the biggest dramas to play out -- of love and family, regret and remorse, life and death.
When the story begins, Russell, who lives 3,000 miles away from his parents, in London, finds his visits home have become increasingly depressing and inconvenient, especially after he meets his future wife, Hilary, and wants to be with her, in England. But he is a dutiful son, and so he does his duty and visits them, even though he is always disappointed anew by what he comes back to -- the narrowness of his parents' lives.
Then he gets the call that Jacob is in the hospital, and he hurries back to be with him. It is only in the aftermath of Jacob's stroke that Russell discovers the depth of his love for his father, his powerful desire to have him well again, and to share once more father and son's joint passions for music, baseball, and photography.
Jacob doesn't get well again. But the downward path to his inevitable death takes some unexpected turns on its way. As Jacob begs his son to help him die, allegiaces shift and long-considered beliefs are tested -- as perhaps the reader's will be too.
For Arden has created such vivid people that we come to examine the difficult questions of the end of life with growing emotional involvement; by the end, Jacob could be our parent or grandparent too.
Thus, with love and pain, pathos and humor, Arden walks us to the Paradise Garden alongside his fictional family, and the walk is touching, challenging and memorable. - Sue Woodman
Ms. Woodman is an ex-Brit and veteran journalist with a keen eye for detail.