Saturday, May 17, 2008

Death, Definace and Delight

""Just one thing," he said. "You're not writing a weepy book full of poems and pictures of rainbows, are you?" "No", I said. I wasn't sure what kind of book he was talking about, but it didn't sound like mine. "It's not that sort of book", I said."
P53 Ways to Live Forever is the debut novel of Sally Nichols. It is written from the perspective of Sam, a child on the bridge between childhood and his teenage years. Unlike many children in that period he looks ahead knowing only one thing, that he is likely to die. Sam has Leukemia. Sam also has a best friend, Felix and a love of lists. He has a helpful teacher and a supportive doctor (Dr Bill). He has a mum and dad and a sister. Sam starts out considering writing a book. He wants to do this because, he finds, people avoid talking about death or dying and so he wants to utilise his love of lists to create a piece of research into death. This covers religious, practical, historical and mythological reactions and thoughts about death. He creates a special list, beside the questions about death, and this provides some central structure to the book. He decides to list 8 things that he wants to do and we follow his attempts at them. This isn’t against a large ticking clock of doom, instead a focused attempt to explore and engage Sam. It enables us, as readers, to take joy in his success and failures as you would with anyone. At times I would forget he had Leukemia, instead just enjoy the wide-eyed exploration of a world through the eyes of a child. The book is almost like a journal or scrapbook. Utilising an abrupt writing style (very similar to 'A curious incident of the dog in the nightime')it manages to convey Sam's emotions combined with medical detail, emotional reflection and great sense of fun! This could be classed as a quick, easy read as a result. Don't let this fool you though. The ease of read isn't completely true. Although the chapters are short, and the events inconsequential, you begin to get a sense of forbodding, that possibly we may not have a 'happily ever after' ending. But, the reader has a guide with the character of Felix. Felix manages to stay remarkably resolute, positive and egging onward until the very end. His presence adds a nice balance. The majority of characters are adult and so his character evens the ages up slightly. For what could appear a dismal set of subjects (death, loss, grief, misunderstanding and pain) the author manages something very different. By approaching it from the perspective of Sam we (the reader) are not bombarded but instead follow this journey of discovery as he discovers more about his disease and we share in that. The subject of a child dying is not one to be taken lightly. It is a desperate time for all involved, no matter how respectful the pastoral care or how good the medical support, and this book manages to cover this so well. Obviously only those who have really experienced, through work or by loosing a child themselves, can truly know what it must feel like. Yet I felt the book managed to convey a deeper truth, that almost brought validity within that. Upon reaching the end of the novel I urge you all to go a few pages further. For, like a film and it's outakes, there is a hidden gem after it. The bibliography and aknowledgements show the real message of the book, the deeper human story. From consulting the fine Children's unit in Bristol, to the range of fiction and non fiction the author was living out what Sam did. Looking at a situation and researching and exploring to try and explain it. Almost that the author approached this with the same wide-eyed fascination so clearly shown through the character of Sam. The constant drip of fact, emotion and joy means each page (almost) turns it'self and leads you onto the next. This book may be Sally's first, but I hope it isn't the last. Take Care Y'All John

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