When I was in Scotland last month at the Edinburgh Book Festival, everyone on the staff was talking about Mayflies. The day Andrew O’Hagan gave his festival talk, “From Page to Screen”, half the box office staff took the time off to go see it. The BBC fairly recently made Mayflies into a BBC mini-series which many fans of the book had watched in the UK. So when I got home to Canada, I ordered Mayflies from the library.
I had understood that it was a book about male friendship, and that it came to a depressing end. So far so good in my books.
This is your classic warning that if you don’t want to know what happens, there may be spoilers in this review. Though if you’ve read about the book, I don’t think you’ll be shocked and really it isn’t the plot that matters.
Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan: Synopsis
Part one follows the narrator, Jimmy, and his lot of friends in Glasgow in the late 80s. The majority of the scenes focus on a trip to Manchester to see some bands and the antics that occured. There are also some bits about parents, school, and working class situations in Britain at the time. Thatcher makes several appearances in dialogue – and none of it is complimentary.
Part two zooms the reader ahead to 2017, when Jimmy gets a call from his best friend Tully with bad news. The second half of the book then follows the two friends as they – with their wives – deal with Tully’s impending demise and how he has chosen to address it. Jimmy aids Tully in his desire for assisted death. The reader goes with the two couples as they negotiate that situation.
I didn’t love the first chunk. Manchester, punk rock, getting stoned and too drunk, and wandering the city streets late at night wasn’t my scene. But it was necessary for O’Hagan to set the scene. He needed to give everyone the clear picture of the relationship between the lads and politics and the music and culture scene at the time. I get the device even if I didn’t jive with it.
The second half though was really lovely and difficult. Tully and Jimmy’s insistence on Tully’s death being the way he wants “Make death proud” becoming the motto of the two of them, contrasted with Tully’s wife’s interest in his continued existence. Many views on assisted death get communicated to the reader through the various characters Jimmy interacts with. At the end of the day, the two couples travel to Switzerland where, in typical Swiss-German fashion, they are all dealt with in a professional but pleasant manner while they await the moment of Tully’s death.
Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) in Canada has been a topic of much debate in recent years. I used to work I worked at L’Arche, a Catholic-founded organization for intellectually disabled adults. It was assumed (I think) that all staff and assistants would be anti-MAID under any circumstance. That is generally the position of disability advocates and those who support people living with disabilities. As a MAID-supporter, this was obviously a challenge though I think I faked the position adequately for the circumstances.
At one point in the book, Tully says he is embarrassed to be unwell and therefore wishes to die. Later, he is physically so sick that he wishes he were dead – to the point that the doctors (ironically) put him on suicide watch. Jimmy wants only to support Tully in his decision.
My favourite lines occured as Jimmy was meeting a friend, Gemma, who was an ordained minister. He asks, ‘Is it murder … to take Tully to Switzerland and pay the assistants there to end his life?’ Gemma promptly responds, ‘No, … It’s that other thing beginning with ‘m’ – mercy.’
She later says ‘The world will be less without him, you have said as much. Now help him get his house in order.’
As a read Mayflies, I couldn’t help but reflect on situations with which I am familiar: families taking perilous journeys across the Mediterranean, or the River Grande with children on their backs, fleeing to something they hope is safety. Young fathers dying quickly of cancer in hospital beds who would much rather be out living and desperately want not to die. And those with mental illness, raging against the dying of the light and yet seeking it out all the same. If someone wishes to take control in a situation that is the epitome of control-free – what right has the public, the government, or the church to stop them?
The book was well written, I’ll give it four solid stars. But what it really should be known for is its dignified and clearly articulated position on assisted death as a valid and valuable method of dying for many people. The importance of the book is not for me in the friendship – which I think is where lots of others get hooked – but in the express wishes of Tully, and in turn Jimmy, to have his death be something of which he could be proud – in spite of his and his wife’s desire for him to go on living. At the end, it is his choice – the choice of the person living that reality – and no one else’s. So it should be.
Mayflies, Andrew O’Hagan. 2022. McClelland & Stewart.