The Book of Malcolm by Fraser Sutherland

Canadian poet, Fraser Sutherland, documented his son’s life with schizophrenia and his sudden death in a posthumous memoir, The Book of Malcolm.

…every day that week was difficult; each had the potential to be the hardest yet.

Sutherland’s memoir is divided into three parts – the first tells of the weeks following Malcolm’s death; the second is a chronological account of Malcolm’s life, including Sutherland’s recollection of memorable family moments; and the third describes Malcolm’s diagnosis with schizophrenia and his subsequent experience of the mental health system in Canada.

My interest was predominantly in the first and last parts, particularly how Sutherland and his wife, Alison, managed their grief after Malcolm’s death –

At some point I told people there was Malcolm, and there were Malcolm’s problems. And that, though the problems were gone, somehow one still wanted them. They’d mean he was alive. Where there were problems it meant they could be resolved. When they asked me if I wanted company, I said it was hard to talk to people. It was harder still to be alone.

And, in the last part, how they coped with Malcolm’s diagnosis, which Sutherland notes had been a ‘preliminary’ to death –

I kept remembering its low points, its twists and turns, its individual separate griefs.

For Alison, there was relief in talking, and Fraser questioned whether, ‘…just as expressing anger can make you angrier, expressing grief might make you grieve more‘ (For the record, it doesn’t). He notes that regardless, ‘…everything was either a distraction or a painkiller.

The second section read as a detailed eulogy, and lacked the rhythm of language that I had settled into. Nevertheless, Malcolm’s personality, values and interests shine through – he was clearly a person who was interested in learning, had a particular sense of humour (and enjoyed a prank), was artistic, and was deeply spiritual.

The book had far more religious and spiritual content than I expected, and had I known that, I probably would have bypassed reading it. Obviously addressing issues of spirituality comes up frequently in any book that explores death, however, I try to focus my reading on memoirs that explore the raw emotions rather than how those emotions fit into a cultural or belief framework. That might seem as if I’m splitting hairs but when you read lots of grief memoirs, it’s noticeable.

Sutherland died 18 months after he finished this memoir, and a friend provides an important Afterword that fills in some of the gaps and reveals more about Fraser as a person (generous of spirit, social, curious). It also states that Alison, whose own mental health deteriorated after Malcolm’s diagnosis, took her own life a few years after his death. On reading that, I leafed back through the last section to land on Sutherland’s words that suddenly had a painful echo –

Craziness drives families crazy.


I received my copy of The Book of Malcolm from the publisher, Dundurn Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

He would miss our late March-early April rituals of spring: an expedition to a deep-woods sugar shack for pancakes, baked beans, and maple syrup…

I rarely make pancakes, but when I do it’s always with Jill Duplex’s recipe.

4 responses

  1. There’s recipes for pancakes! I never knew. (one flour, one egg, one milk is what my mum taught me).
    Ms 18 has been diagnosed, is living with Milly my ex-wife. Ms 18 believes she is in remission. Milly can feel something building up. Might be my turn to have her soon.
    Our experience of the WA system has been ok. Committal seemed drastic, but worked. And she gets ongoing counselling.
    Even without the religion, I don’t think this is a book I want to read.

    • The cyclical nature of mental illness makes the caring very strenuous – a level of vigilance is always there. Good to hear your experience of the system has been okay so far – I agree, it does seem drastic but often that step is necessary in order to access supports, and more particularly, to have quick access to supports in the future.

      And yes, my mum had the same pancake approach however the Duplex ones are super fluffy.

  2. Fraser was my uncle and Malcolm was my cousin. Fraser finished this book, at most, 18 months prior to his death. Pls correct. Thanks!

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