What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this December.
When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi, The Bodley Head London, 2016
As I waited in hospital recently, I was told an oncologist joke – that one of the risk factors for getting cancer is being a nice person. In this case, Dr Paul Kalanithi wasn’t just nice. He was at the top of his field as a neurosurgeon, the recipient of awards, a favourite among colleagues and patients. At 36 he was diagnosed with cancer. At 37 he died.
Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining of life and death.
This is the irony or more the tragedy of Paul Kalanithi’s illness. He was a seeker from the outset, using literature and philosophy to answer some of life’s biggest questions for himself, even as a young student. His search led him to pursue neurosurgery and the process and responsibility of his position was something he was always aware of.
Doctors in highly charged fields meet patients at inflected moments, the most authentic moments where life and identity were under threat; their duty included learning what made that particular patient’s life worth living and planning to save those things if possible – or to allow the peace of death if not.
This memoir is a gift. It’s a reflection on life and death and living with death. It’s one I’ve tagged and underlined, will read over and push into people’s hands I think.
My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley, Granta, 2021
I don’t know what she’s done or how she has done it but this book is close to perfect.
As a reader, I hated putting it down and finished it in two sittings. As a writer, I’m trying to analyse what it was that had such an effect on me. It’s more vignettes than linear plotline. The prose isn’t elevated or attempting any high-wire tricks but there is something close to perfection in it. I was so emotionally drawn in by the characters from the first paragraph and that was all she needed to do. The interactions are of a strained mother-daughter relationship as well as memories of a father and awkward contact with a sister.
A question of craft is to ask what your characters internal and external motivations are. Someone needs to not get what they want to move things along. No one is getting what they want from life or from their family relationships in this book. They’ve all apparently given up but still keep meeting and going through the motions and this is where the meat is. People being people.
One of the reads of the year. It’s under my skin and chasing around and around and around. And when it all settles, I think I’ll have to pick it up again.
Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom, Fourth estate, 2021
Another fraught mother-daughter relationship, except this time you can’t console yourself that it’s fiction. It’s hard to believe that such a beautifully written memoir could be about such traumatic things.
How to sum up the damage and volatility of Michelle Tom’s early family life? A violent father, a manipulative and narcissistic mother, and three children left to absorb the trauma and impact of all those years.
Split with the narration of childhood, there is the adult experience of the Christchurch earthquake(s) and the fissures that opened up for her own family. I loved this and found it fascinating. I just wish she didn’t have to live through such trauma to write such a stunning book.
Repentance by Alison Gibbs, Scribe, 2021
It’s 1976 and as the rest of the country slows down for the Christmas holidays things are charged and accelerating in Repentance. Usually, a small cattle and timber community, the town has new residents. Old farms are being turned into Hippie communes and the newcomers are worried about the fate of the rainforest nearby.
Joanne Parmenter’s mum has just died of cancer. Her dad is a big man around town. He’s pro logging and anti the new hippie arrivals living up in the hills. Joanne’s sister works at the sawmill but Joanne goes to school with Melanie whose Mum is helping to organise protests. On both sides of a fight there are people with families, histories and loyalties that dictate their direction.
The heat, the beauty of the rainforest and the hum of insects beat throughout this story.
…and all around the metallic screaming of cicadas, a tremulous curtain of sound rising and dissolving through the trees.
The Rabbits by Sophie Overett, Penguin Vintage, 2021
This book set in the middle of a sticky Queensland summer felt like the right thing to be reading during a mini heatwave. You can feel the sweaty limbs and relentless heat, although, to be honest, that’s the least of the Rabbit’s problems. When 16-year-old Charlie Rabbit goes missing, the dysfunction that the family has been getting along with gets blown sky-high. Older sister, Olive Rabbit is fuming, younger brother Charlie Rabbit is lost and mum Delia, whose own sister went missing as a teenager, is caught in a present which seems a lot like her past.
When things took a magic realism turn a third of the way through, it felt a bit bumpy and I wasn’t sure it would work, but I was so invested in the Rabbits that I had to keep going. I’m glad I did because, it worked when it was absorbed into the rest of the story.
Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down, Text Publishing, 2021
Before I’d read any of them, I used to get Jennifer’s mixed up – Jennifer Down, Jennifer Mills, Jennifer Egan. This is my first Jennifer Down and I’ve only just started it but she’s distinct now. I’ve already sobbed at the early trauma of Maggie’s life. But Maggie isn’t Maggie anymore. She’s put time and distance between herself and that identity. I need to keep on reading to know the whys and whens and you better believe that I will.
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