Brian Conaghan is unafraid to navigate the precarious line between comedy and controversy. Indeed, his 2011 novel When Mr. Dog Bites, which follows a teenage boy newly diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome, received critical acclaim for its deft drawing of humor from an experience that’s also traumatic. For Conaghan, such an approach is innate; he would argue that it’s part of his heritage. “Death is an area that we Scots find a lot of humor in,” he explains simply. “That’s all we have, isn’t it? You love and you die. I find that quite funny.” With such a macabre outlook, the topic of his latest novel is a natural fit.
At 17, Bobby would love to spend his time like any other teenager, chasing crushes and experimenting with alcohol and drugs. But he can’t. Between looking out for his younger brother and caring for his mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, he doesn’t have much in the way of downtime. And any free time he does have is spent consumed with guilt at the many tasks he could be doing instead. But then something happens that kills any remnant of his lingering childhood: His mother asks him to help her die. In The Weight of a Thousand Feathers, Conaghan explores the immense burden of life as a young caretaker with compassion and candor, grappling with topics that are sure to stick in the reader’s mind long after the book’s conclusion.
In fact, that was his own experience with the topic: Conaghan was a secondary school teacher who also worked in pastoral care at the school, in particular with a group of young teens grappling with grief and impending death. Drawing heavily from Conaghan’s experiences, the novel traces Bobby’s involvement with such a group. “They’re meant to offer a respite and also to be a place where they can share their fears and anxieties and aspirations with like-minded people, people who have an empathetic understanding of what their life is like.”
For Bobby, such an outlet is crucial, albeit difficult. “I think the misconception, especially among peers, is that they just have to feed their loved one medicine here and there,” Conaghan says. The reality of nights spent bathing and dressing parents, of mornings spent rushing to clean urine from bed sheets before heading off to school is a concept far too alien for most young people—and even adults—to fully comprehend. “I was fascinated by the psychology of it all, by the emotional journey, because I had a misconception about what it was also.”
Given the immense moral dilemma that follows Bobby throughout the story, Conaghan could have chosen to focus on the legal implications and repercussions of assisted suicide. “Initially, there was a lot about the legal matters of what Bobby had done,” Conaghan says. He did a lot of research on that topic; eventually he decided to cut it all. “It muddied their relationship,” he says, of Bobby and his mother.
Like everything else in the novel, that filial relationship isn’t exactly straightforward. Readers, armed with their own opinions, will interpret events in different ways, which, for Conaghan, is the point. “I think it's good to challenge teenagers,” he says. “In my experience, they like to be challenged, they like issues that force them to debate and think.”
James Feder is a writer based in Tel Aviv.