Assisted suicide has long been a political, religious and social hot potato.
But Toronto novelist David Gilmour uses the fraught topic to quietly explore what it can reveal about the human heart and the sweet brevity of our earthly existence.
Extraordinary is first and foremost a Gilmour novel. Like his previous seven, including his 2005 Governor General's Award-winner, A Perfect Night to Go to China, this means slim and provocative, characterized by limpid prose and a wry, sexually frank male narrator.
Each page has almost as much white space as type, as if to symbolize the smallness of the human endeavour.
Gilmour goes out of his way to remove any hint of the current debate around euthanasia or assisted suicide.
He sets the story's main incident well in the past. The narrator, now 58, recalls the circumstances, 24 years previous, around his helping his elder and disabled half-sister, Sally, take her own life when she was 49. "All this," she has told him, "has become less and less manageable."
But while the story is filtered through a male sensibility, Extraordinary marks Gilmour's first attempt to imagine a central female character, a woman who has lived fully, if not wisely.
The slight story takes the form of a conversation, related largely in dialogue, between Sally and the narrator. He arrives at her high-rise apartment at the appointed time, with liquor and pills, and proceeds, in one last evening, to bridge the gaps in their lives caused by being raised 15 years and a household apart.
"The truth is," the narrator confesses, "I was so distracted with the failure of my own life, that I felt I didn't have the time to go out of my way, even momentarily, for someone else."
Sally tells him of her youth, of her first true love and then of the man who became her husband and the marital breakdown that followed.
She tells how she discovered her vocation as an artist and relates the story of the freak accident that left her crippled, tripping on a rug at a house party in Mexico and breaking her neck.
She recalls her relationship with her two children, a troubled son whose short life was marked by addictions and a daughter who has grown into an independent and secretive young woman.
In this segment, the conversational ball lands in the narrator's lap, because the daughter, Chloe, has confided more in her uncle than in her mother. Passing what he knows of Chloe along to Sally becomes, in essence, a final gift from brother to sister.
The novel is marked by a generosity of spirit and a refusal to judge. The narrator lacks a religious impulse -- at one point he refers to an evangelical preacher as "a bullshitter in an ice cream suit" -- but he had at the time, and continues to have, ethical qualms about his act. Presumably that's why he took 24 years to own up to it.
His reason for assisting? He was repaying a favour to Sally who, when he was 14 and she 29, drove him to meet a girl at a dance he "was so hungry for" it seemed "a matter of life and death."
"It took me years to put words to it, but I intuited something crucial that night," he says, "that the doing of something you don't need to do for someone whose approval you don't need is an extraordinarily reliable test of character."
This is the only time, by the way, that the word extraordinary (or at least a variant of it) appears in this wise and delicate novel.
Morley Walker edits the Free Press Books section.