None of us have the luxury of hearing what is said about us after we are dead. In Fred’s Funeral, Canadian author Sandy Day tells the story of one soldier, returned from the First World War, who felt misunderstood and sidelined by his family. Only when he dies in 1986, seventy years after he went to war, does he observe his own funeral and find out what they really think of him.
Fred Sadler has lived his post-fighting years in one institution or another. Clearly he is suffering from some form of shell shock or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but this goes undiagnosed. There are periods of living in boarding houses, his family is unwilling to have him live with them, until his behaviour deteriorates and he is sent back to hospital. Now dead and trapped as an unwilling ghost, Fred observes his funeral presided over by Viola, the sister-in-law he always disliked. As the mourners sit around and share memories of Fred, he watches, frustration mounting, as he is unable to correct their observations. They portray a ‘Fred Sadler’ which he does not recognise. I kept expecting something to happen; a true memory of the war, an event, which would explain Fred’s illness and set the record straight with his family. But it didn’t come. The story is told in linear fashion; the anecdotes of Viola and the remaining family are interchanged with Fred’s reaction to these stories plus a few flashbacks to the war. Clearer signposting of these sections would make reading easier.
Day clearly captures the time and place of post-Great War Canada, a subject which is new to me. However I found the repeated digressions into the extended family history and details of the lifestyle a distraction from the main story [so many cousins, great-great grandparents and houses]. I so wanted to cut some of these unrelated sections to allow a stronger novel to push its way to the surface; simpler, more powerful. The inclusion of so many family details makes me wonder if the core of Fred’s Funeral is a memoir, inspired by a real family, from which the author feels unable to cut some relations and take the leap into pure fiction.
The portrayal of Fred’s experience at Whitby Hospital for the Insane is heart breaking, as is the disinterest of his family. For them, Fred is an embarrassment. It is a sad indictment of our treatment of soldiers returning from war and our ignorance that the effect of fighting can last a lifetime. It is easy to assume that in the 21st century this has changed, but the modern day strand of Day’s story suggests it hasn’t. It is as if Fred’s life has paused. “He banished feeling anything long ago. He feels timid. He feels tentative, like every step he takes is on a thick layer of ice and at any moment, he might crash through into a frenzy of drowning.”
At the end of the novel, there is no ‘reveal’, no surprise, and I felt a little let down. Overall, this is a thoughtful examination of how family tensions, petty jealousies and misunderstandings can spread down the generations. Gossip and guesses are transformed into ‘truth’.
Day also writes poetry and this shows in her neat turn of phrase. For example, cousin Gertrude puts on her eyeglasses which “magnify her grey eyes like two tadpoles in a jar”. Read more about her poetry here.
‘Fred’s Funeral’ by Sandy Day [UK: S Day]
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FRED’S FUNERAL by Sandy Day #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-35o via @SandraDanby