The Last Good Funeral of the Year: A Memoir by Ed O’Loughlin

The title of Ed O’Loughlin’s memoir refers to the funeral of an old flame which takes place in February, at the start of the pandemic. O’Loughlin hadn’t been involved with the woman, Charlotte, for more than twenty-five years, and he writes that their relationship had been fleeting, that it had not been love, that it belonged to a former time, a time in his youth.

But Charlotte’s death opens a door through which O’Loughlin encounters himself, dissociated and split-off from the tidal pulls of a life. In the course of his work as a foreign correspondent, O’Loughlin witnessed no shortage of trauma, death, and abject suffering; Rwanda (“a few weeks too late”), Israel, Palestine, and the Goma refugee crisis. “What he cared about most was what he might see next, hoping that it might distract himself from whoever he was.” But a singular, very personal trauma, delivered with blunt force, relentlessly pursues him, catching him, finally, in the months following Charlotte’s funeral – the death of his brother Simon who took his life years before. The difference between Charlotte and Simon, O’Loughlin writes poignantly, was that Simon had “lived and died alone.”

“This is a searing book, reminiscent of Joan Didion’s masterpiece, “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

O’Loughlin, fuelled by a new urgency to reclaim the scattered pieces of experience within himself, strives for a sense of chronology. “Time becomes spastic in grief,” he writes. “Time collapses . . .”  He begins to obsess about the last time he saw Charlotte, to discern the real course of their relationship. “The fact remains, his memory has gaps in it, and some of these gaps may be strategically placed.” He recalls trying to sift through all the messages that Simon left behind, trying to make sense, trying to make meaning, finally recycling a message he found through a character in a novel he was then working on. All this effort at retrieval is fuelled by guilt which, though of a particular Irish-Catholic variety, is universally inevitable. “He should have known Charlotte was dying. He should have been in contact with her. He should have said – what? Goodbye? No. He should have said hello.” And with respect to Simon; “Maybe they could have done more for him. Maybe they could have understood him.” Grief, we come to understand, takes one through a minefield of guilt. With deep suspicions about himself, he begins to look for the reasons for the gaps in his experience, the gaps in himself. Does he have Asperger’s? Is it his hearing loss?  He peers at his life like he is studying a blueprint, puzzling out the order and structure in its unfolding.

But the answer is within him, his humanity, the very nature of trauma and loss. It is striking for a memoirist to not use the first person in telling the tale. He refers to his daughters only by their ages, and refers to himself, in relation to Simon, as “the eldest brother.“  We understand why, mid-way through the book. “For years, he prided himself on this old school detachment. Maybe the I whom he rejected wasn’t general, but specific . . . Maybe it was specifically the I who couldn’t bear to keep a diary, who was so dismissive about his past, and his own achievements . . . Maybe renouncing this wasn’t such a selfless gesture. Maybe It was just a shedding of baggage, another excuse for hurrying past.”

The Last Good Funeral of the Year isn’t particularly a pandemic narrative. Covid, when it appears, is really a stand-in for our mortality, the low soft hum O’Loughlin hears which strangely makes him, and us, feel our common humanity, even if paradoxically we find ourselves alone. This is a searing book, reminiscent of Joan Didion’s masterpiece, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” It wheels between the waypoints in O’Loughlin’s life with remarkable dexterity, honesty and grace, and the writing is deeply resonant. What I found here was an exquisite portrait of grief – how it is timeless, utterly self-absorbing, perhaps even self-indulgent. How it visits us in dreams, sneaking past our conscious minds and our unique talents, subsuming our wounds and our idiosyncrasies.  How it takes us and deposits us just where we must be – in the shock of cold, clean waters, in the beautiful and the terrible surge of now.

ED O’LOUGHLIN is an Irish Canadian author and journalist. He is the author of four novels, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist Minds of Winter, the critically acclaimed Toploader, and the Booker Prize–longlisted Not Untrue and Not Unkind. As a journalist, Ed has reported from Africa for several papers, including the Irish Times. He was the Middle East correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age of Melbourne. Ed was born in Toronto and raised in Ireland. He now lives in Dublin with his wife and two children.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ House of Anansi Press (March 15 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 208 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1487010605
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1487010607

Valerie Mills-Milde lives, works, and writes in London Ontario. She is the author of the novel After Drowning (2016), which won the IPPY Silver Medal for Contemporary Fiction and The Land's Long Reach,(2018) which was a finalist for The Miramichi Reader's 2019 "The Very Best!" Book Awards. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous Canadian literary magazines. When she is not writing, she is a clinical social worker in private practice. Valerie acknowledges that the land on which she lives is the traditional territory of the Attawandaron, Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, and Lunaapeewak peoples who have longstanding relationships to the land, water and region of southwestern Ontario.