Life, Death, and Buddhism

Life is a tricky thing. What is the purpose of it all? Where are we going? Who am I?

These are three questions that bombard the mind of Gameson’s protagonist, Win, as she has an existential crisis of Buddhist proportions. 

She undergoes a death of self, a destruction of her memories and personality in order to attain enlightenment. It is the ultimate form of impermanence, a recognition that the soul does not truly exist. Who she is has nothing to do with her past, but is determined only by her mindset and her level of focus in each and every new moment. She stands aloof from her family and utilises an approach of non-attachment to everyone and everything. And as such the dangers of such a mindset are explored with touches of humour and equal measures of seriousness. Win is unintentionally funny; she is cold and completely unable to understand the experience of others because she is so determined on making her own experience as care free as possible. The possible dangers of an impractical approach to a Zen like mind are relayed. With such an approach to life, it is easy to become very self-involved, often at the expense of others. 

Win is open to change and advancement in a world that is not. Her family do not understand her lifestyle choices, of how a girl from the west can dream so strongly of eastern culture. She wants to relocate once more and retain her enlightenment in a place she feels is truly her home. She has no sense of belonging in the west. Her family resist such changes, and cling to a world they wish would remain the same. But the world is always changing. Society and politics are always changing and going in unexpected directions, just look at Brexit and the recent receiver of the American Presidency. Buddhism becomes a tool to heal a damaged mind, a means of making Win feel on the right path in a world that is moving forward or perhaps one that is moving backwards. 

 an assertive study about grieving for the dead

Bursting through the narrative are frequent suggestions of an unreliable narrator. At first these are subtle and almost unnoticeable, at least, in the beginning of the story. Win seems relatively normal, if a little bit detached from the real world, and as time goes on her sense of reality is clearly questionable. Gameson’s prose is simple and has the ability to easily draw you in. The first-person narration is told with a sense of the everyday, with the monotony of a simple life, though underlining it is something not quite right. A sense of uneasiness, of something not said, about Win’s current position in life. Her family see it though Win does not; she is so focused on being mindful, on carrying out each task with perfection and precision, that she has forgotten something incredibly vital about herself. 

The novel takes on the form of a character study, of a woman coming face to face with her demons. She has many and they have been unknowingly repressed for a very long time. Piece by piece, it all begins to unravel as Win is hired for her skills with linguistics. As a translator, she has to use her abilities to make sense of a world that feels alien to her. She is asked to research traditional Chinese funeral techniques in the hope of discovering more about a dead man’s life. Supernatural stories she wrote as a young teen may hold the key, but reading them has the potential to reverse all the progress she has made in her life time. In doing so she becomes reacquainted with her old self, a self before she discovered Buddhism and those three questions began to invade her life with potency. 

The floodgates are opened and it becomes clear that Win is displacing many repressed and unresolved emotions onto complete strangers. She is also grieving for someone who is not quite dead. The man is her father, who disappeared many years ago, and now Win is convinced he is selling the “big issue” magazine in her local town. What the reality is, in this situation becomes hard to fathom. It’s told with humour and wry perception. Although by the end of the story the questions are eventually answered, and Win’s family do begin to accept her choices, the crux of the novel remains an assertive study about grieving for the dead: the dead self and the dead loved one. Survival becomes the key. 

Salt Publishing took a chance with this book, one that has clearly paid off. Marie Gameson’s debut solo novel is highly successful at questioning the nuances of identity fluidity and reality, of life and death. I recommend to this to those looking for a compelling psychological character study.

The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd [Deceased] by Marie Gameson is available now from Salt Publishing.

Sean Barrs

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