The title of David Gilmour’s latest work, Extraordinary, may be a slight misnomer. What appears on the surface to be an extreme scenario to which few people can relate – one final evening of conversation before the narrator aids his sister, Sally, in committing suicide – is made to seem, well… ordinary. And not in a good way. Or, at the very least, a particularly interesting way.
Extraordinary could have been a deeply personal exploration of assisted suicide and all the issues that swirl around it. However, Gilmour is more interested in the lives of Sally and her children. Gilmour quietly normalizes the situation at hand, establishes that the narrator feels obliged to help his sister with her request, and procures some pills for her to take. Sally’s ailments are never revealed to readers; we simply know that following more than ten years in a wheelchair, having lost most of the function of her legs after breaking her neck in a freak accident, life is “getting less and less manageable.”
Otherwise, the book is the story of one woman’s family, a woman who is drinking and talking with her brother in what happen to be the final moments of her life. The siblings could just as easily be catching up at an all-night diner or outside a party after some chance encounter – Gilmour makes Sally’s impending death relevant but not essential. Yes, the narrator does worry periodically as to whether Sally is making the right choice, but this nervous ambivalence is always secondary to their long talk about Sally’s life.
And to be sure, Sally has led an interesting life. As have her two children.
Sally’s decision to leave her husband and pursue life as an artist in Mexico, bringing her daughter, Chloe, but leaving behind her son, Kyle, is anything but ordinary. However, Gilmour devotes so little time to setting up his characters that their decisions can hardly surprise us. Why wouldn’t Sally pack her bags and head south of the border? Why wouldn’t Kyle steal five electric guitars from his high school? Why wouldn’t Chloe finance her university education by soliciting Canadian millionaires at random? All three of them would do these things. But I didn’t want to simply take the narrator’s word for it. I wanted to know these characters myself, and for this reason the form of Extraordinary fell short.
Although billed as a novel, Extraordinary is really a long short story. (My inner tree-hugger was appalled at the way in which HarperCollins used font size, line spacing, and gargantuan page margins to physically stretch this work out to 185 pages. That this story passes itself off as a novel is what’s truly “extraordinary”…) Gilmour kept me wanting me more. I wanted Extraordinary to be a novel because I wanted to truly get a sense of who these vibrant and unusual characters are, including the narrator, about whom readers learn very little. The form of the story, primarily dialog between siblings, is too restrictive. Their monologues about Kyle and Chloe feel unnatural, are expository, and not at all the way two siblings would talk about mutual family members.
This is by no means an absolute condemnation of Extraordinary. I doubt readers will want back the hour or two it takes to read this story. It’s enjoyable. Gilmour continues to astutely demonstrate the complexities of familial relationships, and his writing is rich with spontaneous detail. Perhaps my desire for more depth, more time with his characters, is a reflection of how most people feel about life: We always want more. We don’t want to go quietly into the night, questions unanswered. And perhaps like Sally, who has calmly determined her time is up, I need to simply accept Extraordinary for what it is and move on to whatever comes next.