Something very strange happened while I was reading Paul Sussman’s book. I was up at night feeling unwell and made it half way without even taking a break. I had never read any of his books so as far as I knew this could have been a debut novel or one of hundreds. I launch straight into books without reading introductions, forewords or acknowledgements because I don’t like to be swayed by them. I don’t want someone else to tell me how to read a book, or in what context; I like to make up my own mind and read them later. I must admit on this occasion I was drawn in by the cover, but beyond that and the back cover blurb I knew nothing.
I realised half way through that I was reading with a smile on my face, despite feeling physically grotty! It made me smile because of the dark subject matter, the humour and sheer ingenuity of Raphael. I put it to one side and thought ‘I really wish my husband Jez had been around so I could read this to him’. He died 7 years before I found this novel and prior to his death he couldn’t read himself. He couldn’t hold a book and couldn’t see to read for himself. He could get listening books but there were certain, funny, books that we liked to share so we could fall about laughing together. They would usually be ingenious, darkly comic and just a little bit bad – rather like this. This was definitely one of those books. I then turned to the foreword and noticed it was written by Paul Sussman’s wife Alicky. I was so sad to read that she had been through the same loss I had, but amazed by the parallel. I contacted her and she was lovely, sharing about her loss and listening to mine.
The character of Raphael Phoenix is irresistible. A cantankerous old pensioner, living alone in a castle, he decides that 100 years of living is enough. He has a plan and he also has a pill. He has had the pill his whole life since his birthday party with his childhood friend Emily. Emily’s father is a chemist and in his poison cupboard, among the ribbed glass bottles, is an innocuous white pill with a simple nick in one side. It has very particular ingredients that ensure an almost instant and painless death and it is the only thing he wants for his birthday so the pair replace the pill with mint of the very same size, with a nick from the edge to match. Raphael keeps the pill with him through his incredible life either in his pocket, in a gold ring or in more difficult circumstances, sellotaped under his armpit. He trusts his pill and knows that it will deliver the death he wants as he sits in his observatory, with an expensive glass of red wine (over £30 a bottle) watching the millennium fireworks. However, before then he has a story to tell us, several stories in fact, which take us through some of the most important periods of the 20th Century and he has a very peculiar way of splitting these stories into sections. Raphael has had some very singular life experiences, and has a talent for getting into scrapes and challenges. Even more surprising are his ways of getting out of them.
I had no idea what to expect and so I was surprised and charmed by this magical piece of work. It manages to be both, earthy and funny, but also incredibly poignant. The only two things he can depend on through his life are the pill and his friend Emily. Emily isn’t always by his side, but just manages to be there at the right times and seems to set his various destinies in motion. Raphael works backwards with his tales until the reader is desperate to know how all of these incredible twists and turns are set in motion and also whether his trusty pill will work so he gets the end he has been working so hard towards. I would read this if you enjoy dark humour and tall tales and like your narrators to be, ever so slightly, morally ambiguous. It is darkly enchanting and I fell in love with it.
Published by Doubleday 22nd March 2014.