The strength of Elizabeth Haynes’ Human Remains lies in its exploration of the moral ramifications of assisted suicide. Through Colin’s strict adherence to the letter of the law, there is a very fine line between murder and suicide, and one could easily argue for either side. (This is not a spoiler, as it is very apparent within the first few insights into Colin’s point of view that he is the guilty party.) On the one hand, all of Colin’s “victims” do indeed make their own choices to end their lives. He does not coerce them; he does not even touch them. He is purely a sounding board for their pain and suffering, albeit a sounding board with an agenda. As a result, he might be innocent in the literal sense of the word, but he is by no means innocent of all wrongdoing. Under the guise of ending the pain, emotional or otherwise, that each person is experiencing, Colin very much wants his chosen “friend” to opt for suicide. He might not coerce them but through a loosely-interpreted version of hypnotherapy, he does push them in that direction.
Similarly, Colin’s passion for the decomposition process is horrifying but not necessarily completely foreign. Many a person – child and adult – shows interest in taking something apart just to see how it all works together. However, for Colin it is more than just a passing interest and becomes something of a fetish. His careful documentation of and excitement over his bodies creates the largest moral morass of the book. It is also in this where Ms. Haynes’ ability for accurate descriptions proves to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, her vivid images create a very dynamic story. On the other hand, Colin’s behavior and his results create supremely tough scenes for the squeamish or easily upset. The human body is messy in all of its various stages, and Ms. Haynes captures this all too clearly.
While the point of the novel is how frighteningly easy it is to become lost and disenfranchised with life, and while Annabel is a great example of this, her passivity does not blend well with her main character status. She might be the stimulus behind the investigation, but she is very much a pawn in her own life. Granted, this only serves to highlight the ease with which Colin can and does select his next victim; however, it also can grate on one’s nerves after a while. Her obvious intelligence and ability to see patterns where no one else can is an asset, yet she treats it as a detriment. She waffles too much between seeking solitude and being depressed by it. She is indeed very bright but does not act as such for the latter half of the novel. It is a dichotomy that proves more frustrating than effective and weakens the novel.
Human Remains is not a bad book. It is not even poorly written. There are even some very smart elements to the novel, especially the uncertainty surrounding Colin’s innocence or guilt in the actual murders. However, Annabel’s weakness does not accord her intelligence throughout most of the novel, and much of her isolation is self-imposed. The difference between isolation and loneliness is a key motif of the novel, but there is something about Annabel and her isolation that does not sit well with readers. As a result, the entire novel gets pulled down into unnecessary drama surrounding a weak character, one that really shouldn’t be as weak as she is given all of her very positive attributes. Psychologically, the story generates plenty of fodder, but once the drama extends beyond the psychological and crosses into the realm of physical action, the story further weakens to the point where none of the vagueness regarding assisted suicide can overcome some of the ridiculous scenarios Annabel faces in towards the end. It makes for a disappointing novel more than an exciting one, although one cannot discount the endless discussions to be had based on Colin’s justifications of his actions. For that alone, Human Remains is worth the read.