Steven Amsterdam, The Easy Way Out

downloadThis was one of those uncomfortable books that you just have to keep reading. I kept feeling as though I couldn’t read sitting still, as though I needed to somehow protest the issues being raised by the protagonists – there was too much at stake to simply be passive, a reader on the outside of some grand narrative. But, read it I did, and without launching a rebellion and throughout, my heart ached a soft, quiet song at the thought of what was endured in this painful telling.

Steven Amsterdam is a palliative care nurse. In his acknowledgements, he explains, briefly, the impetus for writing this novel:

Over the years that I have worked as a palliative care nurse, despairing patients or fearful carers have occasionally asked me if something might be done to speed things up. My first answer is short and legal, some softened variant of No. Then I reorient the discussion to pain managements and specific burdens to see if there are any other measures that my excellent organisation can offer them to ease their distress. WE can almost always improve a situation. When we can’t, and when the topic comes up again, part of me wishes I could say, Sure, just let me get the drugs fro you. But another part of me is glad that task is not within my job description.

This is the basis of The Easy Way Out‘s plot; Evan, a nurse involved in a new, hospital run program to help people in the final stages of a terminal illness to die, comes to question his role, the extent of his ability to help people, and the boundaries of his own humanity. It brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘profound’. There is no doubt that Evan’s journey is interesting and the people he assists, who readers briefly encounter as they make their last voyage into death, are equally fascinating. However, what I found truly remarkable about this novel, was Evan himself.

Evan is quite possibly one of the most complex protagonists I have ever encountered. He acknowledges that he is totally committed to his job and indeed, he quite enjoys his role on the outside of various patients’ experiences of dying. He feels empowered by his ability to assist these people. Yet, this is not what makes Evan interesting. Rather, the true depths of his complexity lie in his relationship with his powerhouse mother, the unresolved death of his father and his inability to truly connect to others. Ironically, it is the bond between him and his mother, Viv, that ultimately lead him to find himself and to accept that he is not God.

There is much more to write about this novel but it is hard to discuss without spoiling the plot and revealing too much. Instead, you should just read the book and then take a long hard look at your own humanity and ask the question: Would you help someone end their life?

You can hear Amsterdam and other amazing authors speak at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival which takes place on August 27-28th at Waverley Library, Bondi Junction. Amsterdam will be on a panel entitled ‘We Need to Talk About Dying: Facing the Inevitable’ with author Leah Kaminsky and Rabbi David Freedman.

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