Book reviews

April Genevieve Tucholke’s The Boneless Mercies (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018)

Interesting yet tiring fantasy on how pagans viewed euthanasia/medical killing before Christianity.

Although riddled with typical feminist nonsense (subordination of men, women create idyllic communities, etc.) and written in excessively small paragraphs, Tucholke’s 339-page fantasy novel is an interesting perspective of euthanasia in an ancient pagan world.  Contemporary readers, who have the benefit of Judaism and Christianity, can learn much from her creative effort.

The balance of this necessarily brief review collates my opinions about the work using the five questions which constitute right-to-life literary theory.

1.  Does the literary work support the perspective that human life is, in the philosophical sense, a good, some “thing” which is priceless?

This question cannot be answered clearly without deeper study since the characters manifest an ambiguous view of human life.  Granted, they trudge through their lives, moving from one person to kill to another (at least, until they abandon their euthanasia killing for a greater, life-affirming goal), but from their statements it is unclear whether they see human life as anything good, true, or beautiful.  Yes, the killers call their activity a “noble” profession (6), but several characters, including Frey, the narrator, express their desire to be something besides a “mercy-girl” (13).  In fact, their killing, according to several characters, is strictly utilitarian: they kill because people are in pain, and they are always paid for the killings (33).

This objection to the fundamental question of their valuation of human life may be anachronistic, however, since the characters are pagan and have no inkling of Jewish and Christian ethics.  However, it is interesting that the characters provide evidence of natural law.  They intuitively know that killing a fellow human being is wrong.  That may account for their desire to become something other than killers.

2.  Does the literary work respect the individual as a being with inherent rights, the paramount one being the right to life?

The answer to this question is obviously no.  The essential philosophy behind the novel is that pain is more valuable than human life.  Otherwise, the characters would do everything in their power to maintain life and alleviate pain, much like what other characters, the genuine healers, do for the sick and wounded or what, in our own world, hospice care workers do when they strive to eliminate the pain of those in the terminal stages of their lives.

3.  If the literary work covers the actions of a family, does it do so respecting heterosexual normativity and the integrity of the family?

While Frey obviously is heterosexual (witness her teenage girl coyness around the only male who accompanies the Mercies, Trigve, as well as her sexual activity with another man), the heterosexual normativity of human family life is either broken, missing, or unknown for virtually all characters.

4.  Does the literary work comport with the view that unborn, newborn, and mature human life has an inherent right to exist?

Frey acknowledges that she uses herbs as chemical abortions (25).  The dehumanization which contemporary euthanasia advocates use is evident in the novel.  Even though she addresses the people whom she will kill as “lamb”, Frey identifies those persons as “marks” [1], a unique dehumanizing term that I have not yet seen in literature, which carries the connotation of a bullseye in archery.  That sounds like a “good death” all right!

5.  When they are faced with their mortality, do the characters come to a realization that there is a divine presence in the world which justifies a life-affirming perspective?

Characters mention pagan gods and goddesses throughout the novel, but, since they follow pagan deities, the outlook on human life beyond the grave is necessarily negative.  Frey presumes that a life “was over [….] would soon be forgotten” after death (76); elsewhere, she refers to “meaningless life” (131).  Characters believe in the transmigration of souls (194) and a cyclic view of world history (223).  Again, one must remember that these are pagan characters who have not yet benefitted from Judaism and Christianity.

Is this novel worthwhile reading?  Well, yeah.  One can pick up some ideas that contemporary abortion and euthanasia advocates might use to justify their killing (dehumanizing terms, a belief that humans can be killed instead of helped with their pain, etc.).  The most tiring thing about the novel is that the paragraphs are so small, but then one cannot expect the quality of Henry James in a novel designed to make money, catering to the young adult market.

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