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.