Book Review: Death Benefits by Sarah N. Harvey

Death Benefits, Orca Book Publishers 2010
Death Benefits, Orca Book Publishers 2010

Royce is sixteen and has just moved with his mother across the country, from Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island. He’s bored, lonely, and biding his time until he can escape back east to his former life. In the meantime, his mother convinces him to take on the job of caring for her 95-year-old father. Arthur is a classically cantankerous old man, a once upon a time famous musician. He loves coffee and CNN, he’s rude to his daughters and flirtatious with every other woman. Royce hates him but the money’s good.

In many ways this young adult novel is exactly what you’d expect. Unlikely relationship blossoms between grandson and grandfather. Grandson learns things about his grandfather’s life that he never knew. All’s well that end’s well. There are definitely some aspects of that but fortunately Harvey does push further. Arthur isn’t likeable and he never becomes likeable. While Royce grows to have a sort of begrudging respect for his grandfather, there isn’t a whole lot that redeems their relationship. There just isn’t enough time and that’s exactly how life works. If you’re 95-years-old, chances are the end is not far off. And if someone’s spent most of those ninety-five years being charming with strangers but distant from his own family, that isn’t something that will change in a few weeks. The story offers a great glimpse at what it’s like to care for an ailing family member and all the mixed emotions that come with it.

In this way, the characterization of the novel is quite good. Arthur has some depth to him and Harvey leaves a lot of the right things unexplained. There are a fair number of unknowns in his grandfather’s life for Royce, just as most of us probably have when it comes to our grandparents. The flip side of this is that Royce’s character doesn’t have a lot of depth. It’s difficult to say what he’s all about. He likes girls and classic cars, he misses his old town and friends and then gradually misses them less. Those are all pretty normal things but the book doesn’t take us much further. Royce could really be anybody. There’s not a lot that makes him unique or shows me who he is. He isn’t forced to make many choices or stand up for anything or do much. Most of what happens in the novel, happens to him, and mostly because of Arthur. In that respect, even Royce’s mother felt like a more fully-rounded character than our protagonist.

Fortunately, the story has enough momentum to bring the reader through easily and I suspect anyone who has spent time with an aging relative, for better or worse, will feel sympathy.

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