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Double Helix by Eileen Merriman

Aspiring to be a doctor, Jake reconnects with teenage friend and neighbour Emily when the young pair meet up again as medical students in Dunedin. The student life with study, socialising and surfing all vying for attention swallow Jake’s time and energies as he strives to become a surgeon, while Emily struggles with the stress of studies and an expectation that she follows in the footsteps of her father, a successful surgeon.


Jake and Emily’s relationship encounters pressures and difficulties but there is an underlying certainty that they belong together. Like the double helix dragons of Emily’s graphic novel, their lives are entwined as they move forward together from Dunedin to Melbourne and eventually back again, all the way to marriage and parenthood.


Jake and Emily’s connection began as teenagers at school when Jake’s mother battled the cruel ravages of the hereditary Huntington’s disease. Underlying their relationship is the problem of Jake’s DNA, his own “double helix” which carries the genetic code for his own future. Is this double helix, the spiral staircase of his DNA, the controller of Jake’s future? Does his gene sequences mean that he too will suffer his mother’s fate? He is anxious about his own prognosis, and the issue of having children is also something to be considered.


This progressively disabling neurological disease is at the heart of the story. So many aspects of this inherited disease are drawn into this story from the manner of Jake’s mother’s death to suicide, DNA testing, pregenetic diagnoses and Advanced Care Directives.


Eileen Merriman is a doctor and this background knowledge brings authenticity to the medical concerns of this story. Life as a medical student and as a house surgeon, palliative care treatment, medical rounds, migraines, intracranial haemorrhages and birthing delivery as well as Huntington’s disease are clearly and realistically described and seamlessly woven into the story.


But more than a medical story, this is a human story which chronicles the personal and relational issues involved with this hereditary disease. Developing a life of one’s own, as well as the ebbs and flow of a relationship are realistically conveyed, both Jake and Emily experiencing miscommunication, difficulties with their fathers, changing perceptions about where their working lives are leading and sharing a secret that is theirs alone. Also there is the pressure, the anxiety and uncertainty, the shadow that Huntington’s disease casts on Jake’s life while they both endeavour to live each day as it happens.


I have previously read Merriman’s novels for young adults and in each case was drawn in by authentic characters, real voices and situations both plausible and problematic. Two teenage boys drawn to each other in a NZ high school, a romance between teenage cancer sufferers, a teenage relationship impacted by mental health issues and friendship blighted by a student’s relationship with a teacher have all been written about. In addition, Double Helix follows two other adult problem novels, where relationships and lives are challenged by social taboo and pressures. And now Merriman is part way through writing a young adult trilogy in a science fiction vein! All these attest to her ability to create characters that live, breath, think and react as real human beings that readers can believe in. Double Helix also demonstrates her story telling skills with unpredictable twists, both small and one large, to the story!

Jake, on a surfboard in the ocean, bookends the story. He floats, alone, alive, waiting for the next wave. How does he navigate the vast future unknown of life? How does he deal with the hand that fate has dealt him? The answer Jake finds is signalled both in the beginning and at the end. And for the reader the novel raises so many questions, not only about the problems and difficulties posed by an inherited disease but also about how an individual can deal with the known landscape of the past and the unknown landscape of the future within the present moment.


Reviewer: Clare Lyon

Published by Penguin