Reasons To Live:
Richard Roper’s debut novel, How Not To Die Alone, is about a loner, who reminds the reader of the lead characters in Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. The bitter-sweet story of Andrew falls under the category of novels that have been labelled ‘Up Lit’ – because, no matter what the protagonist goes through, the end is uplifting.
Middle-aged Andrew has a depressing job with Death Administration, that entails visiting the homes of people who have died alone (sometimes lying there for months), checking their belongings to see if they have any next of kin, or money tucked way to pay for their funeral, failing which the council takes on the responsibility of burying them (the book is set in the UK).
He has no life to speak of, except a passion for Ella Fitzgerald’s music, collecting model trains and an online chat connection with other collectors of miniature railroads. He lives in a dismal flat, has a stultifying routine, talks to himself while fixing the same meal every evening, and tries to stay away from his sister Sally and her unpleasant husband, Carl—his only living relatives.
A harmless lie, in answer to a misheard question, puts Andrew into a spot. He tells his boss, Cameron, that he has a family—wife and two kids—and then makes up a fantasy life in a fancy suburban home. He doesn’t think anybody would bother about it, and keeps adding to the make-believe, till his eccentric boss insists on meeting for dinner at colleagues’ homes as a team-building exercise. Then the kind, thoughtful Peggy joins the office and teams up with him on his morbid assignments.
Soon, she comes close to being his only friend, someone who has an unhappy marriage and two kids to deal, with but cares about him and about the job they they do, even though it is emotionally draining. Like Andrew, Peggy also starts going to funerals of the people left at the mercy of the council, because she believes nobody should have to depart this world with no mourners. She is the only one Andrew could have confided in, but he is afraid of losing her trust.
The story sounds grim, but it is darkly comical as well as poignant. Why Andrew is the way he is gets revealed eventually, but not before a hilarious scene at the dinner at Cameron’s home and an even more hysterically funny attempt by Andrew to enlist his online buddies’ help when it’s his turn to host the dinner.
Andrew is a tragic but also very likeable character, so the reader stops just short of feeling sorry for him and hopes he finds the happiness he deserves. When people in urban societies everywhere—more so in the West—are having to cope with crushing loneliness, How Not To Die Alone makes a strong case for reaching out to others, to help and be helped in return.
How Not To Die Alone
By Richard Roper