Between the months of March and July, I celebrate ten birthdays: husband, mom, nephew, niece, and a bunch of friends all celebrate in the spring and early summer. Most celebrations include planning a meal, giving gifts, marking something on your calendar so you don’t forget that someone you love is blessed enough to get another year. Most of the time these celebrations are joyous and mark a day to appreciate your life thus far or turn over a new leaf to look forward to something better. The last thing you think about when considering someone’s birthday is that they could die on that day. That’s exactly what happens in The Birthday Lunch, Joan Clark’s latest novel.
I’m not giving anything away by saying that. It happens in the first fifty pages and it’s a part of the back cover blurb. The book is about “free-spirited Lily” who has “always played the peacemaker between her fierce, doting sister, Laverne, and her own loving, garrulous husband, Hal, as they competed for her attention. The competition has only grown worse since the three of them moved into a large house together in Sussex, New Brunswick. On Lily’s 58th birthday, a steamy day in late June, Laverne feels she has bested Hal by winning her sister’s company for a gourmet lunch, but it becomes a bitter and short-lived victory when the day’s events take an unexpected and tragic turn.”
What follows is a story about family politics, place and home, quiet but deep-rooted conflict and rivalry based around the tragic death of the one person that keeps the family together. It’s one week in the life of a family facing a tragic loss, and explores the various ways people confront death: with apology, blame, guilt, accusation, and regret. When you turn the last page you feel the effects of that confrontation. Clark’s writing is sneaky like that – you feel like you’re looking in on this family and experiencing their mourning from a distance until the very end when you feel the weight of that mourning within you without really being able to pin down why.
Having read a number of Joan Clark’s books – she’s authored 16 and was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2010 – I was not surprised to find that I thoroughly loved this story. Her writing is quintessentially Canadian and is up there with the likes of Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, and Timothy Findley. She’s a living legend, one of Atlantic Canada’s many talented and celebrated authors, and a staple in Newfoundland Literature.