Under the Shadow of Mortality: Review of Dying Times by Darlene Madott

Darlene Madott’s latest book of fiction, her eighth, might be titled Dying Times (Exile Editions, 2021), but it’s really all about celebrating life and its quirks – even while under the shadow of mortality, the knowledge that, for some, the end is nigh. In alternating tales that feature three characters approaching death – the narrator’s mother, her law firm mentor and partner, and a bitter client seeking a revenge divorce – Madott manages to capture the subtleties and strains involved in the first-person narrator’s relationships with those about to pass on.

Grave subject matter to say the least, the type that could devolve into morbidity and existential angst. But if you’re looking for “woe is me” patches of purple prose, or melodramatic and/or lugubrious scenes designed to squeeze one more teardrop out of the reader, forget about it. Emotions always held in check (as they should be for a litigator-narrator), Madott’s writing is sharp and taut, intense and uncompromising; her scenes, set within a background of the inevitable, are matter-of-fact and down to earth; her truths small and digestible but always building towards something larger and perhaps more difficult to pin down.

While each of the three relationships and interactions has its own intriguing moments and surprises (and that featuring the narrator and her law firm partner Jack could have been a novel on its own), the one I found most engaging and sadly familiar was that between the narrator and her mother. Not so much for the direct connection between mother and daughter but for what it has to say about some family dynamics.

As the narrator’s mother’s health declines and she becomes bedridden, Madott resists the urge to present us with an ideal family uniting to mourn the soon-to-be-loss of a loved and loving matriarch. Instead, she shows how the pent-up jealousies, anxieties and perceived slights of a lifetime can become even more intense as family members tussle to be the “most virtuous,” the most attentive, the most caring. Or at least one of the family members, the narrator’s elder sister, Elizabeth, allows herself to fall into that trap. For the narrator, it threatens to sour what should be a time of reflection, of care, of preparing for the void to come. Instead there are battles and tantrums, recriminations and taunts.

The results are darkly humorous and in some instances farcical, with the sister hustling and bustling to lay claim to being the best and most attentive daughter. Through Madott’s understated writing, you can almost feel the sighs and no-one-understands/appreciates-me sentiments of the self-proclaimed martyr and her tagalong husband:

“Who’ll tend my grave when I’m gone?” Elizabeth said. “No one will ever do for me what I’ve done for you,” (p. 38).

It would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. A more clichéd writer would force sisterly reconciliation at some point but Madott resists the urge. Instead, she lets the narrator face the facts, the inability of the two sisters to find a way to forgive one another, the inability for either to back down:

How could we have allowed our hate for each other to become greater than our love for our mother? Destructive, without reprieve, even as we cope with our dying mother, cope with the need for consolation, (p. 75).

Counter-balancing the unpleasant dance between sisters is the narrator’s three-decades-old relationship with Jack, senior partner in the law firm where she works. Jack admires the narrator’s “fire in my belly” (p. 5). The respect is mutual with the narrator praising Jack’s integrity and his willingness to face storms – be they legal or mortal – head on:

He had a hard mouth. Direct, demanding, all too often, utterly insensitive. He abused men and women alike… Best of all, he was never fooled by fools. By sentimentality, never. By sanctimony, never, (p. 9).

Given six months to live, Jack doesn’t back down. “You see this desk,” Jack proclaimed proudly. “This desk converts into a coffin,” (p. 6).

Madott allows us to see Jack just as he is. No embellishments. No smoothing over the rough edges. No apologies.

Like Jack (and we suspect like Madott herself), the narrator isn’t prone to flights of fancy that don’t, at the very least, have their feet in reality. Having said that, Dying Times ends on a hopeful (or wishful note). Here, Madott allows herself (and her protagonist) to become poetic:

I open my eyes and look at the ceiling above my face and know: I have just heard the sound of an angel. I want it to be my mother. I want to believe she is telling me that wherever she is, she is finally beyond fear. I’d love to think that she got to see my father again, that she caught up to him in his goneness. I only hear the sound of her wings … her wings beating in free flight, (p. 112).

This is a small book at fewer than 120 pages but, to quote an expression from the world of boxing, Dying Times punches well above its weight.

Michael Mirolla is the author of a clutch of novels, plays, film scripts, and short story and poetry collections, which include three Bressani Prize winners: the novel Berlin (2010); the poetry collection The House on 14th Avenue (2014); and the short story collection Lessons in Relationship Dyads (2016). His novella, The Last News Vendor, won the 2020 Hamilton Literary Award for fiction. Michael makes his home in Hamilton, Ontario.

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