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  • Ninay Desai

Six Weeks to Live by Catherine McKenzie

In Six Weeks to Live, Catherine McKenzie introduces us to 48-year-old Jennifer who is diagnosed with brain cancer and told she has six weeks to live. That’s chapter one. Chapter two has her discovering, while still in her car after the doctor’s appointment, that she has been a victim of lead poisoning. Understandably, she wants to figure out the identity of the would-be murderer. This gives us a whodunnit with a built-in ticking clock.

Six Weeks to Live by Catherine McKenzie

The first two chapters are written in first person from Jennifer’s point of view. The intimacy of this point of view lets the readers see and experience events in Jennifer's life as she does. It’s that very closeness that made her unrelatable and unreliable to me. That’s odd, I know. More on that later.

The later chapters show the readers the individual perspectives of Jennifer’s 25-year-old triplet daughters, Aline, Emily and Miranda. These are written in third person resulting in a greater psychic distance between the reader and the triplets unlike the immediacy we have with Jennifer.

The other major character in the mix is Jake, Jennifer’s lawyer ex-husband who has been pleading with her for a divorce for about two years. He doesn’t get his own chapters. They are all suspects in Jennifer’s poisoning but I surmise the author was counting on our collective bias gleaned from true crime novels, police procedurals and legal dramas to kick in.

Those are the bare bones of the plot. What the novel is really about are things that hide in plain sight behind a sunny façade. Like the book itself, which is a whodunnit that cracks open to reveal a family drama at its core, to show us the many little lies behind the perfect white-toothed smiles of the seemingly close-knit Gagnon family. McKenzie weaves in flashbacks that show us the girls’ childhood and how each of them views it differently. I was reminded of the immortal opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s opus, Anna Karenina

"All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The idea of truth being both subjective and more importantly, separate from what it appears to be at first glance is a theme running through the book. A poignant symbol of it are the triplets themselves because Aline and Miranda are identical twins ensconced within their larger identity of being triplets with Emily being the fraternal triplet, if you will.

Catherine McKenzie explores themes of family, trust and the unintended and long-lasting perniciousness of lies in Six Weeks to Live. As a thriller, I’m afraid it lags in the middle with not enough happening to maintain the pace expected of a whodunnit. Neither does it have the urgency expected of a dying woman with only weeks to live on a quest to avenge her own murder. The ending was somewhat predictable too, in my opinion.

However, the aspect that left me absolutely cold were the characters. Frankly, none of them are particularly likable, not even Jennifer, the dying and wronged protagonist with the marked advantage of being given a first person narrative. As mentioned in the beginning, I found Jennifer being a first person narrator a hindrance to trusting her. This is ironic because as a POV character we are privy to her thoughts or at least should be. And yet, there is a sense that she’s holding out on us. That’s what made her unreliable and ultimately not someone I would root for.

I’m all for unreliable narrators and their ilk but to expect the reader to sympathise with them while they play the victim requires more nuanced characterisation. The rest of the characters too seem like stereotypes with lives that fit into neat, corresponding moulds – Emily the organised soccer mom, Aline the Type-A career woman and Miranda the flaky floater without a mind of her own. None of them feel like real people.

Creating a kind of circle of causality, Catherine McKenzie begins and ends her book with someone apologising to the protagonist. Figuring out who they are and what they are asking forgiveness for requires you to read the book. Just don’t go in expecting too much.

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