Saturday, December 8, 2012

Review: Open Heart Runner, by Gregory Marchand

Near-death experiences can create great fodder for memoirists, even if they don’t necessarily result in great memoirs. A brush with death can give a writer a reason to reflect on the value of life and his relationship with friends and family. But it can also breed an especially dull strain of schmaltz, one that infects every line of the narrative and creates tough reading conditions for anyone other than the writer and his immediate friends and family.

Fortunately for us, Gregory Marchand doesn’t fall into any of these traps in his memoir Open Heart Runner. The difference between what Marchand has done in this chronicle of the heart attack he suffered at the end of a race and other memoirs of a similar genre is that Marchand is a consummate storyteller. He understands the great paradox of autobiographical writing: that is, in order to generate a truer portrait of yourself and gain a level of pathos, the focus should be as much on others as it is on you.

On January 11, 1998, Marchand was a fit and active 40-year-old participating in a local race in his adopted hometown of Victoria, British Columbia. Other than the day being abnormally cold for that part of Canada, there was nothing setting this particular run apart from hundreds of others that Marchand had gone on over the course of his life. Yet as the race progressed, it became rapidly clear that something wasn’t right. He began experiencing chest pains, tingles in his arms, a shortness of breath, and other struggles as he worked to complete the run. By the time he approached the finish line, he was in serious distress. He collapsed just as he finished, and others ran to his aid to discover that he wasn’t breathing. Luckily, there were a few neighbourhood doctors participating in the race, and they took turns performing CPR on Marchand while waiting for paramedics to arrive. Marchand’s heart had stopped for roughly 20 minutes; and by any measure of reasonableness he should have died on that cold January ground.

What follows is an exploration of how such a catastrophic physical event could occur to an otherwise healthy and athletic man, and how such an experience brought on moments of self reflection during his long recovery. While he does write in the first-person, Marchand shows a remarkable aptitude for inhabiting the thoughts and feelings of the other people who play a crucial role in this story: his young family, his minister, his friends and neighbours, and the doctors who treat him. It is this detached reportage that gives Open Heart Runner its narrative heft. Marchand is able to describe with equal objectivity the science of open-heart surgery and the emotion of prayer, the anguish of his loved ones and his own bafflement over what has happened, the immediacy of the present and the importance of the past. He doesn’t treat these as disparate elements at odds with one another, but rather as parts of a knitted whole that tell a compelling and prismatic story.

The portrait that emerges is of a man who understands how complex and mysterious life can be, and how it takes an event like a heart attack to really bring it all into focus. Marchand doesn’t provide any pat answers or cheap sentimentality. He tells a very personal tale that transcends itself and sheds some light on what it means to live in the moment, to love and be loved.

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