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A Perfect Night to Go to China

by David Gilmour

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. In recent years, it’s become standard practice for novelists to adopt pop psychology’s five-stage model of grieving when writing about trauma. But as Toronto author and TV arts presenter David Gilmour illustrates in his new novel, there are still some writers willing to put up a modicum of resistance to the reigning clichés.

A Perfect Night to Go to China springs from one of the most potentially lurid of personal tragedies: the abduction of a child. A Gilmour-like TV host, Roman, steps out of his house for a quick late-night drink and returns 15 minutes later to find that his son has disappeared from his bedroom without a trace. The police launch a major investigation, the media descend, friends rally.

And then … nothing. As days and weeks pass, it becomes apparent that the mystery may never be solved. Roman, meanwhile, meanders. He breaks up with the boy’s mother, goes to bad movies, slacks off at work, dutifully punches out an obnoxious dinner companion. His life, we begin to realize, is essentially over.

It may not be a profound revelation that people sometimes never recover from a profound loss, but there’s something admirable, in our age of ubiquitous therapy, about Gilmour’s refusal to tell us that everything’s going to be okay. Most devastating is his portrayal of Roman’s friends’ and co-workers’ reactions to his behaviour. The ease with which they cut him loose (or capitalize on his fall) is chilling, but it feels sadly authentic.

All of which, while revealing, might be hard to digest if it were not for the novel’s superbly controlled voice. Gilmour’s prose style is spare and darkly funny, jewelled with clever metaphors and precise details. It’s enjoyably reminiscent of Raymond Chandler (if Chandler had been an upper-middle class Torontonian with a townhouse in the Annex) at his peak.

Despite the book’s intelligence, it is not a total success. This may be an inherent problem of the subject – so much lazy melodrama has been written about missing children that even intelligent work on the subject can seem guilty by association. Still, A Perfect Night to Go to China is a compelling example of smart writing about trauma, and an uncomfortably pleasurable read.