Death as a character always makes me nervous. You remember Death in The Book Thief, right? You just know it’s not going to end well. And Death, in The Clothesline Swing, has been following the other characters around for awhile.
Ahmad Danny Ramadan, himself a Syrian refugee and now a Vancouver resident, writes a melancholy tale of a gay couple. One of the men is at the end of his life. The other is trying to find a way to live with grief, which has been a constant companion for both men, whose homeland was destroyed by war and politics.
The narrator is the Hakawati (the storyteller) and as his partner coughs and holds on, he tells him stories of their pasts. He remembers their memories, good and bad. He grieves for his lost family, his lost lovers, his lost country, his lost boyhood, his lover’s changed personality, and the great loss to come. This book is really a meditation on death and dying, even while stories of life and love are woven in.
“Waiting for death is a job for the lonely. You, as a human being, are unfinished still, but your time on the planet seems to be finished. You feel as if you’re anticipating sadness with sadness, sitting there, awaiting an end, reaching with sorrow even before it happens,” the storyteller muses.
Meanwhile, Death flits around their kitchen, asks for a smoke and eavesdrops on their conversations. He inserts himself.
“Death and I hear your footsteps as you walk around the house, intentionally avoiding my office. You know I’m smoking my second joint of the day and the smell bothers you … “Tell me a story,” says Death. “You tell all the good ones to him. Tell me my own story.” I smile.”
It is a beautiful story, clearly written with love. It’s immersively sad though. I can picture the couple, and feel how much fear and pain they’ve carried to Vancouver, through their difficult immigration from war torn cities. Nothing was going to be easy for them, and even now that they are safe, years later, they have not escaped Death. And in this, it is hard to read because none of us will escape. We’ll only have our stories until even those fade.