Death came unexpectedly to a relative of Jennifer Quist.
When her father-in-law fell off everyone’s radar about 10 years ago, his disappearance was not at first considered unusual. After all, the divorced man lived alone and was a bit of an eccentric who would fall out of contact with people from time to time.
But when his unexplained absence became prolonged, the Quists went to his Southern Alberta town to get his landlord to unlock his residence.
They found the 57-year-old had died at home of a heart attack about five days previously.
What came after was an intense experience that Quist recounted and fictionalized in Love Letters of the Angels of Death, a 2013 literary novel that helped the Lacombe author land a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artists Award this month.
Although only 30 years old at the time, Quist and her husband, Anders Quist, found themselves at the centre of funeral planning. They had entered alien territory in many ways, and yet also found it was much like orchestrating a wedding on two days notice, recalled the author, who had to order flowers, book a hall and deal with the funeral industry.
That last interaction was the oddest, she admitted. “My father-in-law was to be cremated and they would ask us things like, ‘Do you want us to dress him first?’ You’d think . . . really?”
In the end, Quist and her husband turned out to be so good at planning funerals that they became the family’s go-to couple when other deaths arose over the years.
Quist, a freelance journalist who has written for the Globe and Mail, National Post and CBC, realized it’s a gift to be able to deal rationally with a subject that’s so off-putting to many people. While most of us are squeamish about death, or consider it a morbid subject, the author feels it’s healthier not to be alienated from such a “huge” part of the human experience.
Her down-to-earth views stem in part from her strong faith (the author is Mormon), and also from her solid marriage.
Love Letters of the Angels of Death was written while the now 40-year-old was raising their five sons in Lacombe. While this might seem like a daunting (or even impossible) task, the kids, ranging in age from six to 17, got used to their mom needing time to write, said Quist, who credits Anders for getting dinner on the table nightly, even though he’s a Crown prosecutor.
“The strength of our relationship made the whole thing possible,” said Quist, who added “I couldn’t have done it without (Anders). He’s such a good husband.”
She hopes her novel will make more people come to terms with the finite nature of life and relationships. She believes this realization will make both better as neither can then be taken for granted. “Even a very good marriage will end someday in death — and that’s a separation.”
Quist also wanted to disprove a famous quotation from Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
“Happy families are not all alike,” maintains the author, who believes every family comes up against stressors and negative experiences. The trick is learning to deal with them positively.
“People are unsatisfied if they expect their relationship to look a certain way. I wanted to show them: No, this is how it looks like. It’s a mess sometimes,” she said, but couples can support each other through the bad times.
Love Letters of the Angels of Death was published by Linda Leith Publishing, a small literary press in Montreal, and has received positive reviews in newspapers across the country, including the Advocate.
Quist’s writing was described as “extraordinarily strong” and “evidence of a rarely encountered original voice” by adjudicators of the prestigious Emerging Artists Awards.
A largely self-taught writer with a sociology degree from the University of Alberta, she was very pleased to get the $10,000 prize and plans to put some of the money towards some writing courses.
The B.C. native, who has lived across Canada, is next planning to move to Edmonton as her husband now works there. She’s already planning a second novel. Its subject? “Another happy family,” said Quist — “only this time, it’s about a group of sisters.”
Love Letters of the Angels of Death is available from Sunworks in Red Deer, and can be ordered through Chapters and Amazon.