On Monday, I called for more authentic memoir reviews to be tagged on twitter so that
aspiring writers and keen readers can find more reading material appropriate to their interests.

I don’t plan to turn my blog into a review site but occasionally I read something amazing that I want to share OR I read something everyone else is lauding and I don’t agree. And then, there are cancer memoirs I think I could share my perspective as a cancer survivor so that others in a similar situation can choose their reading wisely.

It’s worth saying first that books affect me with feelings more than anything else. I sense them and I can tell you whether I think they’re worth reading but not always why. After a while it can be the simple feelings that’s all I remember. I would be a hopeless professional book reviewer! So I’ve had to consider the effect this one had one me from a number of angles.

No comment on the worth of the person is necessary with memoir. All honest memoir is worthy for its insight into another’s soul and for that we should always honour and appreciate its author.

This review is simply how this book left me with all the context in which I must consider it.

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

I was being haunted by “When Breath Becomes Air” even before I ordered it. The title was inspired by a sonnet by Baron Brooke Fulke Greville. I’d seen the hype online. I loved the title. It drew me in with its aching loss. I promised to read it. I did. And then I didn’t sleep for several nights.

Paul Kalanithi had an intimidating career. It would be easy to get sucked into agreeing with reviews thinking this makes his loss of life at 37 ‘all the more tragic’. More tragic than what? You or I dying at that age? I was a little disturbed that intelligence, education and career milestones might make him a better person.

And the hyperbole on the book jacket doesn’t cut to any insight that might help you decide whether you could or should read it for yourself.

Against the clock, Kalanithi writes a beautifully worded exploration of early life, career and how our sense of self is tied up with our sense of potential and possibility. And then he writes about huge loss by sharing tiny, heartbreaking moments:

“A young nurse, one I hadn’t met, poked her head in. 

“The doctor will be in soon.”

And with that, the future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.”

What I felt was his race against time calling for incredible need to foreshorten his written exploration – I sense it. I know there was a lot more there. And that loss is tragic – not to hear him explore more. I admire his being able to cut to the bones of a book under pressure of the reaper – but as a read by someone hoping to draw comfort, it was a mixed of course a very mixed bag.

Here is someone learning the importance of life on fast-track with no way of stalling the deadline.

“Severe illness wasn’t life altering, it was life shattering. It felt less like an epiphany, a piercing burst of light illuminating what really matters, and more like someone had just firebombed the path forward. Now I would have to work around it.”

A great sadness for me is that he might have balanced his life a little more given the wisdom only such stark events can force you to take on board.

No-one dares go there in other reviews it seems, but I wanted to shout “NO!” out loud when he describes working ridiculous long hours propped up on pain killers to achieve professorship. I cannot admire ‘being too tired to eat’. How any physician imagines his body can have a fighting chance without enough sleep or nutrition eludes me. This divorce between his mind and relationship to his poor body are a paradox.

His writing is indeed beautiful and captivating as reviews suggest and he would no doubt have become an even better writer over a few more years. His learning of what life was all about accelerates towards the end and his most beautiful words are the last he writes, for his daughter, Cady:

“When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

However, the part that haunts is the last part of the book written by his wife Lucy – describing their baby daughter bursting with new life and potential ‘gumming mashed yams’ as Paul’s strength wanes and even then, he and her not realising how little time was left. She describes his last hours and last breath. The end comes almost suddenly. I will not describe what haunts me in case it haunts you but rest assured it was peaceful.

If you have cancer and all the fear that goes with that of unknown deaths, you may not wish to read this book or you could stop before Lucy Kalanithi’s epilogue. I thought 15+ years on cheating death would give me headroom. This is the first cancer memoir not about a survivor, I have read in all that time – I won’t read another because it threw me back into my own nightmares.

However, Lucy’s words are for me, perhaps the best in this book. Her style is simple and matter of fact but I picked up more emotion reading between lines describing winter turning into spring than I had in Paul’s erudition.


About the Author – From the book blurb on Amazon:

PAUL KALANITHI was a neurosurgeon and writer. He held degrees in English literature, human biology, and history and philoso­phy of science and medicine from Stanford and Cambridge universities before graduating from Yale School of Medicine. He also received the American Academy of Neu­rological Surgery’s highest award for research.

His reflections on doctoring and illness have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Paris Review Daily.

Kalanithi died in March 2015, aged 37. He is survived by his wife, Lucy, and their daughter, Elizabeth Acadia.