Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Pause by John Larkin

Seventeen-year-old Declan O'Malley decides to kill himself. The novel splits the story into two narratives, one before and one after. The story begins five hours before his attempt to commit suicide. It's a Saturday morning and Declan is focused on checking his phone for a message from his girlfriend, Lisa. But no message is forthcoming from Lisa who is being sent by her mother to Hong Kong.What Declan doesn't know at this time is that Lisa's vindictive mother has confiscated her phone.

Two hours before Declan is at home with his mother at breakfast but cannot eat because he's in so much pain."There's nothing I can do. There's nothing I want to do. I just want the pain to stop." His sister Kate tells him to forget about Lisa and his father tells him there are "Plenty of other fish in the sea." But his mother encourages him telling him that "The sun will smile on you again soon. I promise." and she offers to listen if he needs her to.

The story then jumps to seven months prior and tells how Declan arrived at the situation he's in, in the present. Declan who attends Redcliffe Boys is waiting at the train station on a Monday morning waiting for this girl to show up. His friends Chris and Maaaate show up and encourage him to approach the girl he likes. A month later Declan finally works up the courage to approach Lisa on the train, talking to her about To Kill A Mockingbird. They exchange home phone numbers before Lisa exits the train. When Declan finally visits Lisa's home the first person he meets is her mother whom he immediately nicknames "The Kraken".  Lisa's mom is cold and grills Declan about his family and his plans for school. Lisa and her mother argue and finally she is allowed to study with Declan in the kitchen. The Kraken regularly checks in on them, but Declan and Lisa managed a few kisses.

Meanwhile an hour before his suicide, Declan packs his backpack and tells his mom he's going to meet up with Chris. He reflects on the state of his mind and remembers back to his budding friendship with Lisa.  They managed to find time together by sneaking away from Lisa's Christian Crusaders group, only to have her mother, The Kraken, find out and punish Lisa by sending her to live in Hong Kong. Minutes before, Declan buys a train ticket to the airport where he hopes to meet Lisa before she leaves for Hong Kong. Instead he makes that fatal choice to jump. Or does he?


John Larkin has written an insightful and unique novel about teens and suicide. Larkin began work on The Pause after suffering a mental breakdown himself in 2012. Initially his book began as a work of nonfiction but evolved into a story about a teenage boy who decides to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. He chose a teenage boy as the main character because suicide predominantly affects young people who do not have the life experience to cope when they are experiencing a mental health crisis. In The Pause, Larkin explores both versions of Declan O'Malley's life; the one where he commits suicide and the one where he "pauses" and does not follow through.

In The Pause, Larkin provides readers with a graphic description of what happens to Declan when he is hit by a train. He details not only the physical destruction of Declan's body but also the emotional and pyschological effects. Prior to jumping, Declan's thinking isn't logical. All he's thinking about is stopping the unbearable pain.
"I watch the train emerge from the tunnel. The train can take me away from all this. It can stop the pain. It can heal my ruptured nerves, silence my screaming mind. And it will be quick. Will be efficient. It will be final. Everyone will be better off without me."

However, when he is hit by the train, it is anything but quick and Declan quickly realizes how his horrific death will affect his family, his friends and bystanders. "I thought this would be instantaneous. Boy was I wrong. Very wrong..." Declan feels the destruction of his body and it is described in detail. He also becomes aware of how his death affects the train driver,  "The look of horror on the driver's face will stay with me forever as no doubt will the memory of my shattered face on his windscreen. He will wake up in a cold sweat every night for the rest of his life"  and the children on the platform, "Little kids off for a day shopping or a day at the movies will also wake up screaming at night." As he's dying Declan begins to count the cost of his suicide. "It's now that I start to contemplate the damage I've left behind. My parents will have to identify my body. My body. How could I do this to them? Who's going to tell Kate? ...Who's going to break it to Lisa? Who's going to tell her that the future we'd planned on our train ride to see Bombay bicycle Club is over?"

From this point on Declan is forced to see the life he gave up. Or did he? Larkin leaves his readers with that question to contemplate throughout the novel when he pauses Declan's story and states that he now gets "to see, in vivid detail, the life that I gave up." Declan's story continues but this time with him making the choice to pause and in that instant to save his life.Declan is taken to hospital and eventually sent to a mental health hospital where he receives medication and group therapy. From this point Declan begins to heal and is able to carry on with his life.

Larkin uses Declan's narrative covering the nine years after the train incident to offer strategies and advice to those suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. For example in therapy, psychotherapist Ed Chui tells Declan and others in the group, "Life is about enjoying the little moments...And isn't that life? Little moments stitched together. We're all going to fall on bad times and go through sadness, through breakups, through death, bereavement and depression. It happens. It's a part of life. But those moments will pass and you'll have good moments again. You'll have great moments. You'll have beautiful moments." Ed tells of his own struggle with suicide and how he didn't act on his thoughts because "I knew I had to stay alive. Not for the life that I was having at the time, because frankly it sucked, but for the life that was just beyond the horizon."

Later in the novel, Declan states, "But in order to have those moments you have to work through the pain, find a way out of the darkness. You have to pause. You have to live."  And that's Larkin's central message in The Pause. Declan's life is not perfect after his suicide attempt; his parents divorce, he and Lisa eventually part ways for many years, and he ends up breaking up with his fiance on his wedding day. But, Declan has many good moments. He reconciles with his father, is successful in his job and comes to terms with what happened to him when he was cared for by his Aunt Mary. His life proves that Ed Chui was correct.

Overall, The Pause is a remarkable novel, honest in its treatment of suicide and offering a message of hope to those struggling with life, that things will get better. Larkin has created a realistic character in Declan O'Malley. The heavy subject matter is lightened by Declan's humour and forthright honesty.

Book Details:

The Pause by John Larkin
North Sydney, Australia: Penguin Random House   2015
329 pp.

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