14 November 2007

Book Review: Evacuation Plan by Joe M. O'Connell

Evacuation Plan: A novel from the Hospice
By Joe M. O’Connell

Dalton Publishing
182 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9740703-8-4

Death isn’t usually the focus of contemporary novels. It’s dark, it’s uncomfortable, and it doesn’t typically inspire the warm and fuzzy feeling that mass market readers seem to require for beach reading selections. Death forces readers to confront their own shortcomings, failures, and emotions. But while death may be a topic most authors avoid directly, it plays a major role in most story lines. There are no murder mysteries without death. Some of the most beloved romances include characters forced to endure the world once the love of their life passes on. Epic journeys are often instigated by the death of a revered individual. What, then, frightens authors and audiences so much about dealing with death directly?

Joe M. O’Connell tackles the culture of death in his debut novel Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice. Matt, a wayward filmmaker determined to find the fodder for his screenplay, spends time with the patients, staff and family members of a local hospice and gets more than he bargained for. Through each character’s revelations, Matt inches his way closer to the issue that drove him to write the screenplay in the first place—his unresolved issues with his father’s death, and his abandonment by his mother. Ultimately, Matt realizes that the examination of death requires the examination of life as well. With the passing of his favorite patient, Mr. Wright, Matt comes to understand that forgiveness is as life changing as any cure.

O’Connell’s approach to story telling is reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or Boccaccio’s Decameron. While Matt plays the host, the stories that each individual shares provide snapshots of different cultures and socioeconomic classes, and illustrates how death effects everyone regardless of wealth, gender, education, or age. In an age where voyeuristic appetites are catered to with Reality TV, O’Connell shares a glimpse of how tragedy effects everyone, and how dealing with death is as important for the grieving as it is for the dying.

Each vignette has a unique flavor and is written in that specific character’s voice, leaving no question that each story is distinctly one character’s experience. Matt’s own journey throughout the book, however, creeps through the supporting narrative until the inklings that astute readers develop in chapter one about Matt’s true motivations come to fruition. The most impressive accomplishment of Evacuation Plan is that the structure of the novel and O’Connell’s vivid imagery encourage readers to visualize the entire narrative as a film even as Matt is scrounging to develop his own screen play.

Review by Dawn Papuga