Memoir of a Good Death is the first novel by Calgary author Anne Sorbie. The story is narrated alternately by real estate expert Rhegan and her mother Sarah, and details their struggles to come to terms with the death of Rhegan’s father and ultimately with their own fractured relationship.
The twist? We know from the opening pages that Rhegan is dead.
Sorbie follows in the grand tradition of Robert Kroetsch and Aritha van Herk and uses landscape to full effect in her story. In this case, we are treated to the sometimes calm, sometimes restless, sometimes downright violent Bow River. The action of the novel flows at times in tandem with the movement of the water, and at other times in opposition to it. Opportunities for metaphor abound in this novel and Sorbie employs them with surgical skill. She doesn’t push you fully clothed into the raging waters of her symbolism, but lets the seeping dampness advance a little at a time until you suddenly realize that you are awash in the beauty and sadness and strength and fury that colour the lives of her characters.
Rhegan sells property along the Bow River. To be in sales is to be ever concerned with the bottom line – black or red – and this is reflected in Rhegan’s strong personality. Her territory runs from mountain to canyon, through city and over prairie. It floods. It recedes. Not unlike profits and losses. Like any good sales rep, Rhegan knows what she sells and she’s good at it. Unfortunately, she is not as skilled in her appraisals of those she loves.
Rhegan is somewhat hard to get to know even though she is forthright about the mistakes she’s made in her life. Her death has afforded her the chance to come to terms with the errors she’s made face the fact that she has hurt those she most loved. Her vulnerablility is revealed through her inability to dispose of one particular property in Calgary’s Inglewood neighbourhood. She cannot bear to let it go, and as she explains why, we connect with her and are pulled into her tale.
Sarah, her mother, is distant. At first it seems it’s due to the untimely death of her husband, but soon it’s clear that Sarah was always a mother who held back and didn’t engage with her daughter. Her sections are written in the second person, which is a little hard to get used to at first, but even though I’ve never really loved that POV, it actually suits her character. Sarah was unable to forge an outwardly loving connection with her daughter, so it makes sense that she would have a voice that forces you to keep a bit of distance.
Rhegan’s story is told in the first person POV. This is perfect for her character. After all, it’s really all about her, isn’t it? Her mother, her exes, her father – they are like river currents that move around the island that is Rhegan. She knows this though, and doesn’t flinch as she lets us in on her self-centredness. It would be unfair to give away the details of Rhegan’s death, but I will say I held my breath throughout the three pages that described the action. Brilliant.
There are not many books out there that feature Calgary, and very few that feature the city in such lovely and loving detail. Anne Sorbie has crafted an original book that defies expectation. It is evident in the minute details of her story that every element was chosen to highlight what goes on underneath what we usually see, whether beneath deceptive calm waters of a river, or the person sitting next to you at breakfast.