William Peace’s lyrical and inquisitive novel Fear of Dying: The Diary of Albert Smithson chronicles the last two decades of a modern Englishman’s life, as he questions his purpose in a rapidly changing society and searches for the meaning of life.
After his mother’s passing, Bertie Smithson (whose given name is Albert) decides to keep a journal to help him understand “what it means to die.” Bertie starts the journal at age 54, and each chapter is structured as one year of his life. Set in London after the turn of the millennium, Bertie hasn’t ventured far from the church he grew up in or his extensive family, with whom he’s still close. He works as a construction foreman, which he feels unsuited for. He and his wife Josephine have three adult children and multitudes of grandchildren.
With humility and acuity, Bertie grapples with his place in a transforming, interconnected world. He feels conflicted about the presence of a young, female priest leading service in the Church of England, for example, and has conversations with a Father Anthony about Catholicism’s cultural differences in Latin America. The novel is compassionate and precise in creating space between Bertie’s perceptual limitations regarding race and the reactions of characters around him.
While the story contains a huge cast of characters that may be difficult for some readers to keep track of, the connections between Bertie’s family and friends is the novel’s greatest strength. One of the most memorable chapters is Bertie’s 62nd year, where coinciding family events intertwine jubilation with deep sorrow. A few years later, as Bertie’s brother contemplates suicide, Bertie offers the connection to their family as reason not to take his own life.
Overall, Fear of Dying is a thoughtful examination into what it means to live meaningfully. It is a quietly provocative and profound book that will especially appeal to literary readers contemplating loss, end-of-life, enduring love, and family.