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I Was There the Night He Died

by Ray Robertson

Following 2011’s Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, which was nominated for the inaugural Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction, Ray Robertson returns with a novel that considers themes of death, loss, and self-harm, all presented with a folk singer’s slouched but sturdy backbone and a cowboy’s loaded smile.

Our narrator is Sam Samson, a writer whose wife has recently died in a car accident. Not long after her death, Sam returns to his hometown of Chatham, Ontario, where his father is suffering the late stages of Alzheimer’s. Sam’s mother died of a stroke some years ago. His uncle, Donny, is a problem gambler who has squandered most of the family money, putting Sam’s father at risk of being evicted from his care facility. Depressing, right? Wrong.

Though he describes himself as “[r]eal fucking sad,” Sam is actually a pretty upbeat guy. While in Chatham, he goes for beers with old teenage buddies, attends petition meetings to save his former high school from closure, and engages in a sexual relationship with a woman named Rachel, who was homely back in their high school days but has become miraculously attractive. If Sam’s in denial about anything, it’s his own buoyant nature.

The heart of the novel comes from Sam’s innocent but nonetheless precarious fascination with a depressed teenager named Samantha who, Sam discovers, is a “cutter.” The two Sams meet almost nightly in a park to smoke pot and talk music. Their bond, more authentic than any of Sam’s other Chatham connections, reminded me of Timothy Hutton’s relationship with a teenage Natalie Portman in the 1996 film Beautiful Girls.

The narrative is interspersed with morsels of wisdom that range from humorous (“Offering a writer an audience is like inviting a drunk to an open bar”) to whimsical (“[D]ifficult decisions are what tomorrows are made for”) to ridiculously self-evident (“You find your hope where you find it”). The sections in which Sam reflects upon his relationship with his dead wife, however, are incredibly moving. If there’s one thing Robertson gets just right, it’s heartbreak.