Joan Clark is the author of numerous books for adults and young adults, including An Audience of Chairs, which was shortlisted for the Winterset Award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her new novel follows one family in the wake of an unexpected death.
Set in New Brunswick, the story focuses primarily on the relationship between Lily, her husband, Hal, and her sister, Laverne. Due to their tenuous financial situation, the three share the same house, but live in separate quarters. Hal and Laverne do not especially care for one another, and the tension heightens as the two vie for Lily’s time and affection. That competition comes to an abrupt end early in the novel, when, on her 58th birthday, Lily is struck dead by a gravel truck. Hal and Laverne are both devastated. With precision, attention to detail, and narrative dexterity, Clark explores the effect of grief on Lily’s family – both immediate and extended – and the community as a whole.
Lily’s children, Claire and Matt, return home to help their father with the logistical matters that accompany any death. The bulk of the novel spans the week of their stay, during which the siblings undertake an evaluation of their own lives in the light of their mother’s premature death. Matt is a successful Calgary lawyer with two children, the youngest of whom is two years old but has never met his deceased grandmother. Claire works at a university library, but is embarrassed when her father boastfully refers to her as a librarian (because she is not). She is also engaged in an affair with a married man twice her age.
Despite the tragic accident in the opening pages, The Birthday Lunch is a quiet novel that saves its surprises for its final third. Clark praises small kindnesses, like that of Sophie Dower, who leaves dinner on Hal’s doorstep every day for a week following the accident, disappearing before he answers the doorbell. Ultimately, the novel celebrates the intimacies shared between family and friends, while simultaneously revealing the (potentially fatal) nature of unresolved hostilities.