1162 Six of one, three of another
Six Weeks to Live
by Catherine McKenzie
Toronto: Simon and Schuster Canada (Atria Books), 2021
$27.00 / 9781982159214
Reviewed by Valerie Green
Although Six Weeks to Live begins on a very sombre note and appears to be a book about dealing with imminent death, author Catherine McKenzie soon turns her story into a psychological thriller which will keep the reader guessing until the very last page.
On the first page of the book, the protagonist Jennifer Barnes, a woman in her late forties who is the mother of three daughters and who had previously been in good health, is given a devastating diagnosis of terminal brain cancer with only six weeks to live. After the initial shock of learning this news, she is determined to improve her relationship with her triplet daughters, Aline, Miranda, and Emily. Aline and Miranda are identical but Emily, the third triplet, is completely different both in character and appearance. Jennifer has only ever been close with daughter Emily, who is the one most like her. Because of this, there is an undercurrent of resentment among the siblings. All three daughters’ stories are also intertwined into the book as it evolves.
Set on British Columbia’s mainland between Vancouver and Surrey, Six Weeks to Live could well have taken place anywhere in the world because it is a universal story of a complicated, dysfunctional family in crisis with complex relationships.
After her diagnosis, Jennifer is also anxious to spend as much time as possible with her twin grandsons (Emily’s sons), but she also becomes obsessed with finding out why this cancer has suddenly happened to her. She is soon convinced that her diagnosis is as a result of lead poisoning a year earlier, and the most obvious person to accuse for such a crime would seem to be her estranged husband. He has long wanted a divorce in order to marry his much younger, now pregnant girl-friend and Jennifer has refused to give him one. Trying to discover if and when he might have had the opportunity to insert lead into her food becomes Jennifer’s obsession.
This is where Catherine McKenzie’s book goes on a completely different track. The story immediately becomes full of twists and turns, as all good psychological thrillers should, and takes the reader down paths they could not have imagined.
Is Jennifer imagining it all? Is her strange belief of having been poisoned a side effect of her brain tumour? Or did someone really try to poison her? As the story unfolds, on one page you will believe you know what might have happened, but then a sudden twist will send you in a completely new direction. In addition, everyone in the story has a hidden secret; secrets that also slowly come to light.
This story is partly about a family trying to mend itself and partly about the three daughters’ different reactions to their mother’s imminent death. It also covers aspects of marital betrayal, postpartum depression, and mental illness. By the end of the book, the reader will still be guessing and you will be shocked to discover what really happened. The ending is almost magical.
Author Catherine McKenzie is an expert at writing heart-warming stories with an emotional depth that shows up in all her books. “I mourn for the loss of my own life,” she writes, “and everything I’ll be missing from now until when I should have died. Forty years from now, or longer if my grandmother’s any guide.” I found this both poignant and moving.
After thinking about all of the things she will undoubtedly miss, protagonist Jennifer adds, “I am a book that will remain unfinished, and I was very much looking forward to seeing how it would all turn out.” These are thoughts that anyone might have after being given a terminal cancer diagnosis. Another passage that particularly moved me reads: “The rain that had been missing the last six weeks showed up for the funeral. A row of black umbrellas made a shape Miranda didn’t know the name of. Perhaps the name should be grief.”
As the author of ten novels such as bestsellers I’ll Never Tell and The Good Liar, Catherine McKenzie is on a winning track and Six Weeks to Live is guaranteed to join their ranks. But as I said earlier, McKenzie’s latest is much more than simply a story about a woman facing death. It is a psychological thriller bar none, and I suspect it will keep you guessing until the very past page.
Valerie Green was born and educated in England where she studied journalism and law. Her passion was always writing from the moment she first held a pen in her hand. After working at the world-famous Foyles Books on Charing Cross Road, London, followed by a brief stint with M15 and legal firms, she moved to Canada in 1968 where she married and raised a family, while embarking on a long career as a freelance writer, columnist, and author of over twenty non-fiction historical and true-crime books. She is currently working on her debut novel Providence, which will be published soon as the first of The McBride Chronicles, an historical four-generational family saga bringing early BC history alive. Now semi-retired (although writers never really retire!) she enjoys taking short road trips around BC with her husband, watching their two beloved grandsons grow up and, of course, writing. Editor’s note: Valerie has recently reviewed books by Mary-Anne Neal, Vanessa Winn, Edeana Malcolm, Janie Chang, Gina McMurchy-Barber, Eric Walters, and Gail Anderson-Dargatz.
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