Alan Spence, Author . MacAdam/Cage $22 (308p) ISBN 978-1-931561-70-9

Picking up where Evelyn Waugh left off in The Loved One , Spence turns a touching '60s coming-of-age story about a Scottish undertaker's son into a sharp, funny and ultimately gut-wrenching commentary on the ceremonies that surround death and dying. Neil McGraw is the son of a widowed, staid Scottish funeral director who bridles at the prospect of inheriting his father's business. After a cheeky scene in which he brings home a date who seduces him by hopping into one of his dad's coffins, he takes off and becomes a hippie, making stops in San Francisco, Mexico City, Bali and India along the way. His focus shifts when he falls in love with a woman named Lila, who quickly becomes his wife, but then his father dies and Neil is forced to come home and make the funeral arrangements. When a widowed family friend approaches Neil to help him bury her late husband, McGraw reluctantly becomes an undertaker. Turning duty into fun, McGraw, his wife and an artist friend begin a free-spirited approach to funerals that includes custom-painted coffins and themed ceremonies involving Harleys and Star Trek costumes. Such lighter moments are offset by a particularly compassionate ceremony for an AIDS victim and a macabre scene in which McGraw embalms his own father. In an agonizing final twist, the undertaker must face his own mortality after a cancer diagnosis. Spence manages the sudden tone shifts with amazing dexterity, and his light touch keeps the humor from spilling over into silliness and self-parody. The comedy and a strong central character makes this novel surprisingly bright and engaging, but it's the thoughtful compassion beneath the surface that makes it memorable. Agent, Camilla Hornby at Curtis Brown. (May)

Reviewed on: 05/10/2004
Release date: 05/01/2004
Genre: Fiction
Hardcover - 293 pages - 978-1-897580-48-6
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