#813 Mordant men of Nova Scotia

The Home Stretch: A Father, A Son, and All the Things They Never Talk About
by George K. Ilsley
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020
$19.95 /  9781551527956

Reviewed by Brett Josef Grubisic

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Considered by title alone, The Home Stretch might encourage a vision — a celebratory one — of completion: finishing a taxing race at long last, if not necessarily winning it. Ruminative, revelatory, candid, and bittersweet, The Home Stretch is an astounding, complex meditation. But it’s not an upbeat, victory against-all-odds, sort of story. “I would be helping him out,” Vancouver-based George K. Ilsley writes toward the end of his memoir. “Helping him avoid the miseries of an old-age home. Helping him escape the ordeal of his decline, avoiding the last miserable home stretch.” Moments before, Ilsley has confided that he’d indulged in fantasies of killing his ailing father, imagining the act as a form of “being helpful.”

In that same chapter the author — in his 50s at the time — is upfront about persistent suicidal thinking (“This is how it has been for me as long as I can remember”). A few pages later he refers to his sister’s suicide and his alcoholic mother’s death after it: “My mother died in a car accident, but part of me feels she died of a broken heart. She certainly died with one.”

As it weaves between past and present, The Home Stretch unfolds as thoughtful and far-reaching. Ilsley touches on family, history, and care, and the insidious ways the past seeps into the present. And he ponders the eternal hopes for love, happiness, ease, and contentment, which somehow remain elusive, or else materialize in forms that aren’t quite as promised.

Less abstractly, The Home Stretch recounts the tense, effortful relationship between a “fussy” and “impossible” son and his “stubborn and feisty” father, a furious “frustrated tyrant” (with a tendency to hoard) who shows virtually no interest in his son’s life in Vancouver. The memoir opens in Berwick, Nova Scotia, in 2010, when Ilsley’s father was ninety-one years old; it ends in 2015, with the father’s memorial service.

George Ilsley

During that final stretch, Ilsley flew to Nova Scotia for a few weeks once or twice a year. For him, the visits put his family’s “messy history” into sharp relief and illustrated the irksome difficulty of overcoming “decades of frustration and anger” between father and son.

Adamant about upholding the fiction of his health, well-being, and capability, the elder Ilsley faces off against sons whose good intentions are misunderstood (or brought about in underhanded ways that erode trust).

The family’s household features “zones of control” and three adult men (Ilsley’s brother lives nearby) with “short fuses”; the adventures in caregiving and peace-making highlight steady challenges more than shared victories. Often, Ilsley injects the scenes with a mordant perspective: really, he seems to say, we’d all be so much easier to love if we didn’t have those pesky personalities forged so many decades before.

Philosophically-minded too, Ilsley states, “Death is a clarifying event.” In the hands of this sober, disquieting writer, a quest to extract meaning from familial discord becomes a gift for readers. Their unique and inevitable experiences with care, family, aging, and differences of perspective will benefit from witnessing Ilsley’s years of making sense of a certain address in Berwick, Nova Scotia.

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Brett Grubisic

Brett Josef Grubisic resides on Salt Spring Island and teaches at UBC. He’s the author of Oldness (Now or Never Publishing, 2018) [reviewed by Dustin Cole in The Ormsby Review no. 398, October 13, 2018 – Ed.] and The Age of Cities (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2006), and is currently finishing up his fifth novel, My Two-Faced Luck.

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