Review: The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald

It’s probably stretching the friendship to discuss this book at Fair Dinkum as Helen Fitzgerald no longer lives in Australia (though she did until she was 23), the book is not set here and it only borders on being crime fiction (sitting more comfortably in the comic/noir/suspense category if there were such a thing). But I liked it a lot so decided it fit within our flexible guidelines.

The Donor has a simple, though hideous, premise. Will Marion’s twin teenage daughters, Georgie and Kay, both develop a rare genetically inherited kidney disease. They will die without each having a transplant and Will is desperate for a solution but what is the right one? Should he find their mother? Try his parents? Donate one of his own kidneys? But to which daughter? How far would a man go to save his children?

You might think it would be hard to find the humour in dying teenagers and desperate fathers but Fitzgerald makes it look easy as The Donor is full of rich, dark humour. It’s in the depiction of Will as Scotland’s most hapless chap; full of ideas but rarely getting beyond the point of making a list about how he would achieve his latest notion (such as the one he makes detailing the relative merits of different suicide methods). It’s in his choice of temporary relief from his circumstances and the humiliating way he must make his way home afterwards. It’s in the short, clever sentences that you sometimes have to read twice to be sure you’ve gotten all their meaning. I loved, for example, the way we learned about Will becoming a single dad:

“Will was thirty-three when Cynthia went out to the shops”

I just love the way that line conveys so much in so few words.

To counterbalance the humour there is a vein of almost (but not quite) unbearable sadness that undoubtedly draws in part on Fitzgerald’s experience as probation and parole worker. As the most heavily fleshed-out character Will himself is both sad and funny at different points in the novel and as a reader I moved from mild annoyance at his lack of oomph to being wholly in his corner and willing him to success (whatever that might look like). But his wife, the girls’ mother, is just sad from start to finish, though very credibly drawn as a person whose entire life is consumed by addiction. The girls themselves are equally believable; displaying the mixture of childish and adult emotions that any 16-year old would do, never mind one who is facing such a gloomy future.

I read the book in a single afternoon which is due in equal parts to its short (at least these days) length of around 60,000 words and the compelling nature of the story. The very ordinariness of the people and their situation is easy (and therefore terrifying) to identify with and you can’t help but turn one more page to find out what will happen.  The presence of a vaguely surreal sense of humour throughout saves the book from being anywhere near the maudlin, ‘misery-lit’ category so popular in some literary circles. Highly recommended.

There’s a guest review of one of Helen Fitzgerald’s earlier novels, Dead Lovely, at Fair Dinkum

My rating: 4/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Author website:
Publisher: Faber and Faber [2011]
ISBN: 9780571254378
Length: 309 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: borrowed from the library