Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Age Of Innocence By Edith Wharton: Masterful Exposé Of A Stifling Society

Cover ofThe Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I’m kicking myself for leaving The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton unread for so many years. This masterpiece of storytelling and characterisation has lingered on my “owned but unread” bookshelves for well over five years. I dug it out purely because it was the only book I own that fitted the brief for the 1920 book club hosted by Karen of KaggsysBookishRamblings and Simon of StuckInABook. 

Why haven’t I got around to reading this book earlier?

The answer is simple. My experience with another of Wharton’s much-praised novels, House of Mirth, coloured my judgement. I couldn’t get into that book at all, finding it rather uninspiring. I was afraid The Age of Innocence might be a repeat of that experience. 

How wrong could I be? 

The Age of Innocence is a tremendous study about a society that is completely bound up with rules and codes of behaviour.

Today we think of New York as a city of ceaseless energy, a melting pot of cultures, ideas and backgrounds. But in the 1870s it was a city where the ‘establishment’ of rich and powerful, live in a structured world of complex values and unwritten codes. These people reject anyone – and anything – who dares to change the status quo.

Wear the wrong dress to the opera. Dine at any time other than 7pm. Get married too soon after the engagement and before the requisite number of visits to “the Family.” Blatantly engage in extra-marital affairs. All such transgressions of the accepted order can result in the offending party being ostracised.

Edith Wharton examines this society and its constraining effects through the character of Newland Archer, a cultured young man who is a bit of a catch in the marriage stakes. He likes to think of himself as a non-conformist “distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York”. Yet he lives very much governed by the codes of his class.

A]n unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was molded: such as the duty of using two silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blue enamel to part his hair, and of never appearing in society without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.

The plot of the novel revolves around this tension in his life.

When the novel opens he is about to be engaged to May Welland, an acknowledged beauty from an esteemed family. He envisages she will fully blossom under his guiding hand. Though he loves her grace, her horsemanship and skills at games, his intent is to coach her to a greater appreciation of literature and art. Together he plans, they will travel and be unconventional.

But frustrated by May’s lack of independent action, her refusal to speed up the betrothal time or to elope with him, he comes to view her as “a terrifying product of the social system he belonged to.”

His eyes are opened wider by the arrival into his life of a distinctly unconventional woman, Countess Ellen Olenska. As a young girl she had been educated in Europe. Instead of the ‘proper’ lessons of needlework and etiquette, she had learned life drawing with nude models. She married a fabulously wealthy count Olenska, but when he turned out to be a bore, she left him.

The Countess has now returned to New York City., cutting a glamorous though controversial sway through its stuffy circles. Much tut tutting ensues because she chooses to live in a bohemian neighbourhood alongside artists and writers, goes to parties hosted by women deemed “common” women and – horror of horror – scatters flowers around instead of arranging them neatly in vases.

Newland falls in love with her and her spirit of independence. The feeling is reciprocated. But there’s a problem – she is still married and he is engaged to another woman.

The Age of Innocence follows the course of this love triangle. Will true love prevail or are Ellen/Newland destined to be forever apart? I’m not going to tell you because it will spoil your enjoyment of reading this novel and especially the haunting final chapter.

Newland Archer is an expertly rendered character. He feels utterly trapped, driven to “inarticulate despair” by a marriage (he does go through with the wedding) to a woman he finds boring and a life he has accepted out of “habit and honour.”

In one key scene, he is at home with his wife. As he regards May he is dismayed to recognise she is “ripening into a copy of her mother”, becoming a woman who would “never, in the all the years that lay ahead, surprise him with an unexpected mood, a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion.” In despair he throws open the window.

After he had leaned out into the darkness for a few minutes he heard her say: “Newland! Do shut the window. You’ll catch your death.
He pulled the sash down and turned back. “Catch my death!” he echoed; and he felt like adding. “But I’ve caught it already – I am dead. I’ve been dead for months and months.”

If May represents death and constraint, the Countess is life. She holds out the promise of a relationship filled with passion, drama and a world of possibilities. But where Newland seems ready to reject everything he believes America stands for, Ellen sees there is much in American culture that is worth keeping. She values its fairness, honesty, integrity, and a respect for others.

These two women are frequently shown as opposites. In the first scene for example which takes place at the opera house, May is corseted in virginal white with a “modest tulle tucker” to disguise her breasts. Ellen shocks the patrons by arriving in a revealing Empire style dress which draws attention to her bosom. Innocence versus experience clearly in this setting but I think this is rather too simplistic an interpretation of May. Throughout the novel she shows her self to be an artful player, cleverly manipulating her husband and his lover yet never showing her hand.

I loved the way Edith Wharton shows the conflict between his desire for a new way of life, and the reality. Wharton makes him a figure of ridicule, a daydreamer who is seldom able to realise his dreams. He talks passionately about breaking away from convention yet when the opportunity arises for him to revel, he bottles out.

The Countess provides the colour and energy of the novel. a woman for whom we are meant to feel empathy. Like Newland Archer she is caught in a trap between her desire for independence from a loveless marriage and the pressure of her family to avoid the social stigma of a divorce. It’s a powerful illustration of Wharton’s key themes of entrapment and the lifeless nature of a society that was ignorant its reign was coming to an end.

The Age of Innocence was a glorious book to read. What a fantastic way to bring my ClassicsClub project to an end!. This experience with Wharton’s novel has encouraged me to have another go at The House of Mirth. I fear I may have misjudged it.

Love, Loss, Grief and Guilt In The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves

Novels about marital relationships don’t usually excite me much but the premise of The Silent Treatment was intriguing.

Frank and Maggie have been married for more than 40 years. But for the last six months, Frank has not uttered a single word to his wife. They’ve shared the same house, and even the same bed, and eaten meals together. But all without speaking.

What triggered this silent treatment? An argument (must have been one hell of a row to still be festering after six months) ? A medical condition rendering incapable of speech?

It takes almost the whole of the novel for us to discover the reason in this accomplished debut by Abbie Greaves.

A Marriage In Retrospect

But first we learn about the history of their marriage, its delights and its sorrows.

Frank goes first, reminiscing about the heady, ecstatic days of their early life together. He’d always been a bit of a loner, never much of a hit with girls, but as soon as he saw Maggie, he knew she was the girl of his dreams. Unbelievably (to him) his feelings were reciprocated.

The one blot on their marriage is that the child Maggie longs for, never materialises. They learn to live with the loss and Maggie’s bouts of depression. But then completely out of the blue, she is pregnant, and their life is made complete by a daughter who is bright, intelligent and a joy. Until she hits her teenage years that is, and goes completely off the rails, causing untold pain and anguish for her parents.

Confession Propelled by Tragedy

We learn this only because out of necessity Frank has started to talk to Maggie. There’s still no conversation. There can’t be because Maggie is in a coma, the result of an overdose of sleeping pills. Frank found her collapsed unconscious at the kitchen table.

Terrified that she may die before he has a chance to explain his silence, he knows he has to explain his silence. He’s always been a quiet man, one who finds it difficult to express his emotions. “Talking has never been my strong point, “he admits.

His task now involves such a painful confession he can get there only in small stages, starting right at the beginning. He’d been on the point of revealing everything to Maggie once before when his guilt was “so pure, so overwhelming”. But he chickened out when he saw her, a shadow of her former self and knew he couldn’t do cause her any more harm.

I opened my mouth a million times and God knows you must have noticed. I thought maybe once the shock had worn off it would be easier. But that never happened. It just got harder and harder… I told myself I had time to find the right way to say it. I wanted a way to tell you the truth without risking you leaving me…

Time Running Out

But now that time is rapidly eroding. Two hours before the doctors will decide they can do no more for his wife. Will he make it before it’s too late?

Abbie Greaves keeps up the suspense throughout the whole of Frank’s narratives, with plenty of hints to keep us guessing. To delay the resolution still further, she switches to Maggie’s perspective, told through a series of notes she’s left for her husband to read after her death.

It’s through Maggie’s version of events over the last six months, that we can fully appreciate Frank was not the only partner who had left things unsaid.

As a deeply intimate but also realistic portrait of a relationship, The Silent Treatment is a success. At times delightful, it’s also heartbreakingly sad as it shows the utter devotion of a couple crack under the strain of a wayward child.

The suspense element didn’t work as well for me. I found Frank’s anguished comments hinting at the catastrophic nature of his revelation, set up a huge expectation in my mind. The disclosure of the secret was ultimately a disappointment. I remember reading it and thinking: Is that all? If there hadn’t been such a build up I would have accepted the ending far more readily.

Despite that I still enjoyed the novel’s exploration of love, loss, grief and guilt. It will be interesting to see her next novel.

The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves: Endnotes

The Silent Treatment was published on 2 April in hardback by Century.

Abbie Greaves worked in publishing for three years after leaving university. She wrote her debut novel while working as an assistant to a literary agent in London. She currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland where she is working on her new novel, The Ends of The Earth.

My thanks to Century for an advance copy of The Silent Treatment. Explore other bloggers on the book tour organised by Anne Cater at Random Book Tours

 

An Unforgettable Tale: One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard

One Moonlit Night by Caradog Pritchard

Poverty, sickness and hard labour stalk a Welsh village community in Caradog Prichard’s award-winning novel One Moonlit Night. This is the reality of life in a small slate quarrying community as seen through the eyes of a young boy. But though there is also sadness and tragedy, there is also joy; the first sight of the sea; an entire community united in song and a raucous football match.

One Moonlit Night was written as a portrayal of a way of life known intimately by Carodog Prichard. North Wales is where he was born and lived most of his life with his widowed mother, just as his narrator does.

I think that’s why the book has such a strong sense of the child’s love for the village and its inhabitants. Pritchard’s narrator knows every inhabitant and how they are related. He knows too every inch of his village; each street and lane being but a playground for him and his best friends Huw and Moi.

They’re full of curiosity these boys; forever asking questions and wanting to stay out late so they don’t miss anything exciting. They’re also an adventurous trio, exploring the surrounding hills and lakes and always on the look out for fun even if it’s just picking wild berries on the mountainside or passing on the latest gossip.

Shadows Of Reality

Yet their exuberance doesn’t mask the darker reality of their lives. In just the first chapter the narrator encounters an epileptic fit, suicide, illicit sex in the woods, and domestic violence. These don’t cause the boys any deep anxiety however; a sign perhaps that they are such common place occurrences they don’t warrant any commentary.

At one point for example they hear Moi’s mother scream. One boy asks if they should fetch the local policemen only for Moi to reply: “No, there’s no need for that. He won’t do anything to her. They’re always like that.” Their innate curiosity takes over so they inch closer to the door, to find Moi’s mother fighting with his uncle; one armed with a bread knife, the other with a tuck knife. Minutes later they’re all sitting around scoffing bread and butter as if nothing untoward had occurred.

Shadows of Hardship and War

These are kids whose lives are framed by hunger and hardship. The first World War has cast its shadow on the village, creating heroes but also bringing death. The boys go to school but know their childhood will not last much longer. Their families need them to work, to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. So just like their fathers, they’ll head to the nearby slate quarry.

One Moonlit Night doesn’t have a story as such. It’s a series of episodes that spin through different points in time; mixing gossip and anecdote with dreams and recollections. At some points the narrative seems to even leave reality behind, entering the realm of myth with invocations to the Queen of The Black Night and the Queen of Snowdon (the Beautiful One)

Come again my Beautiful One, come again and take me before the sun rises from his resting place, before we are disturbed by the bleating of the lamb; fully possess your chosen one before the withering of the moon’s candle; prepare before me the joy of my afternoon.

Lyrical Yet Ordinary

Caradog Prichard offers a heady mix of the lyrical and the commonplace but also draws heavily on local dialect and expressions. Few characters have standard names; instead they’re denoted by their occupation, or their relation to another character or their residence. So we have Elwyn Top Row, Little Will Policeman’s Dad, Bob Milk Cart, Johnny Beer Barrel’s Dad and – my favourite – Will Starch Collar.

Seeing these names on the page reminded me so much of the village where my parents were born. Few people there used surnames either. When they spoke about a neighbour or someone else in the village. It was always Jones the Milk or Dai Post or Evan Two Shoes (the origin of which is lost in the mists of time). It’s a practice possible only in a small community where that can be just one post man or milkman,

Won Over By Energetic Narrator

I didn’t take to this book initially but slowly its humour and energy won me over. I loved the narrator who has a zest for life that’s hard to quench and a love for his gran and his widowed mother that is matched only by his love of bread and butter and lobscouse (a kind of lamb and vegetable stew). He even prays for food, inspired by a line from the Lord’s Prayer he’d recited in church that morning:

Give us this day our daily bread … bread.
And after saying daily bread, I didn’t go any further with the others, I just started thinking. I remembered Mam telling me before we came to Church that we had no bread to make bread and butter with, and so I asked God for some more daily bread cos the parish money wasn’t coming till Friday.

That quote is one of many examples of how Pritchard blends humour and darkness in this novel. One moment you’re amused by a small child who takes a very literal interpretation of a prayer and the next you’re jolted into recognition this is a family very much on the breadline. What begins as a narrative of childhood fun and laughter, slowly but steadily gets darker until the final, heartbreaking ending.

It’s an unforgettable book.

One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard: End Notes

Caradog Pritchard

One Moonlit Night was written in the Welsh language and published in 1961 under the title Un Nos Ola Leuad. The first English translation was issued in 1995, followed by a BBC radio broadcast in English the following year.

The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales called the book “one of the most impressive novels to be published in Wales since the Second World War.” with a narrative stye reminiscent of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. It was Caradog Prichard’s best known work although he was also a highly regarded poet, three times winning the National Eisteddfod crown.

My edition was published in 2015, translated by Philip Mitchell. I read it as part of the Wales Reading Month (called Dewithon) hosted by Paula at BookJotter.

At Home With …Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf at home

High on my wishlist of literary destinations to visit, is the weatherboarded cottage bought as a country retreat by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. 

Monk’s House lies in the small village of Rodmell, a few miles south of Lewes, in East Sussex. The couple bought the place on 1 July 1919, paying £700 at an auction. 

Monk House, home to Virginia Woolf

Monk House was a fairly modest sized property dating from the sixteenth century. It had few mod cons but over the years the Woolfs made many additions and improvements. They upgraded the kitchen, installed a hot water range and a bathroom with water closet. In 1929 they added a two-storey extension. At some point they added a large conservatory. 

Monk House, Home to Virginia Woolf

Initially the house came  with three-quarters of an acre of garden including an orchard and a number of outbuildings. In 1928 the couple bought an adjoining field to preserve the beautiful views from the garden towards Mount Caburn.

Monk House had been purchased as a country retreat, a place where they could escape from city life, to read, write and garden. But they spent more and more of their time in Rodmell, eventually living there full-time from 1940 when their flat in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury, London, was damaged during an air raid.

Retreat From City Life

The solitude of village life allowed Virginia respite from the tumult of London. “This place has great charms” she said while noting that Monk’s House had no water, gas or electricity. It was a quiet existence in which she could retreat to write in a small wooden lodge at the bottom of the garden.  It was a purpose-built replacement for the converted tool shed she used in the early years at Rodmell. It was here, and in her bedroom (built as a sanctuary with no indoor link to the rest of the house) that she wrote  Mrs Dalloway To The Lighthouse and Orlando.

But this was not a solitary existence: many of the members of the Bloomsbury Group, including T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey visited the house. Virginia documented their visits, together with other scenes at Monk House Monk’s House in a series of photographs, now held by Houghton Library, at Havard University.

The peace and tranquility of Monk House were not, however, sufficient to counter her concerns about her mental wellbeing. She lived in fear of a further mental breakdown; a return of the severe depression from which she had suffered for many years. On 28 March 1941, Woolf drowned herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the nearby River Ouse near her home.

The letter she left behind for her husband indicates her state at the time:

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came.

Virginia Woolf’s remains were buried under one of the two intertwined elm trees at Monk House which she had nicknamed “Virginia and Leonard.” Leonard marked the spot with a stone tablet engraved with the last lines from her novel The Waves:

Against you I fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!
The waves broke on the shore.

After Virginia’s Death

Leonard continued to live at Monk’s House, playing an active role in village life as manager of the village school and president of the horticultural society.

Upon his death in 1969 the house was bequeathed to his close friend, the artist Trekkie Parsons, who sold it to the University of Sussex in 1972. It was eventually turned over to the National Trust in 1980.

Visitors to the property today find a house filled with the Woolfs’ art collection as well as personal items including a collection of 39 Arden Shakespeare plays that Virginia hand-covered and her portrait painted by her sister Vanessa.

Monk House, Virginia Woolf's final home
The sitting room at Monk’s House

Monk’s House is closed at the moment as a Covid-19 protection measure. But when it does re-open you can be sure I’ll be writing my name in that visitor’s book. Anyone else care to join me??

if this has whetted your appetite, take a look at the National Trust website for Monk’s House and drool over the photos of the garden. Or watch this short video

Passion and Cruelty in Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans [book review]

Turf or Stone is an “amazing, fantastical, invigorating reading experience” according to Kate Gramich in her foreword to the Library of Wales edition of  Margiad Evans’s novel. 

Turf or Stone

That was a long way from my experience. I find it hard to accept that such a dark, troubling and uncomfortable novel about the extremes of human emotion could be invigorating. Passion, violence and cruelty are ever present, with only a few moments of unexpected tenderness to lighten the darkness. 

We’re only a few pages into the book when this becomes evident. Mary Bicknor, a servant cum companion to an eccentric lady, is to be married. She has hitherto enjoyed a comfortable existence but falls from grace when she discovers she is pregnant by Easter Probert, a groom at a local farm.  The vicar hurriedly pushes the pair into marriage. But this is a relationship clearly doomed never to work. 

Disastrous Start to Marriage

The bride cries all the way through the marriage service. There are no witnesses or guests. Mary is presentably dressed but Easter turns up in old and dirty clothes. He’s forgotten a ring so at the last moment has to take a thick twisted one from his hand that is far too big for the woman. On their way home, he snatches the ring back and pushes her over into the mud

Easter continues to be a cruel husband. He’s a serial womaniser who takes pleasure in hurting and humiliating his wife. Mary is driven to despair. She contemplates suicide but finds comfort instead in an affair with her husband’s employer, a married man with three children. She applies for a legal separation order so she and her young son can start a new life away from both men. The novel ends with Easter on the receiving end of a form of poetic justice. 

A Monstrous Womaniser

n Easter, Margiad Evans has devised a protagonist who has few redeeming qualities. He is sullen, insolent and brutish. Appropriately Easter is described repeatedly in nightmarish, animalistic terms. When his employer’s daughter Phoebe hears him knocking the door one night, she’s confronted with the grotesque vision of a man peering through the window looking “livid, the upper teeth were showing and a large spider’s web, really on the inside, seemed at that distance to be hanging from his mouth. 

Enough to give you the creeps. Yet he has no trouble persuading women into his bed. He seems to have a strange and perplexing hold on them; they recognise the danger he presents and are repelled by him but they still don’t walk away.

Moral Complexity

However much he bears a resemblance to some brooding Gothic figure, Easter is not a caricature. Evans invests him with moral complexity, particularly in his relationship to women. We’re told he “loved women who were sad and gentle, and suffered him,” That word “suffer” is central to understanding his constant swings swings between sexual desire and hatred, between a desire to be loved and violence when he isn’t. 

He’s hoping that Mary will be kind towards him but when she doesn’t “suffer” him, he takes revenge in brutish behaviour. One of the most terrible scenes in the novel takes place when his wife is five months pregnant. He comes home with “a surprise”: a dead rat he puts into her bed.

And he pushed it deeper and deeper into her flesh, till, hanging round his neck, she dragged herself up, and with the poisonous little carcass crushed between them, seized him by the ear and tugged.They struggled furiously in the darkness.He did not strike her; he half carried, half dragged her across the room and poured a jug of water over her head. 

The details are horrific. Told that the “rats eyes are running, there are flies’ eggs in the fur, the tail’s half off,” Mary crawls away “like a thrashed animal in snarling despair” to cower with her face against the wall. The scene ends with Easter swamped by ‘voluptuous tenderness’ sleeping with her in his arms. 

Childhood Influences

Turf or Stone suggests the reason for his Easter’s appalling cruelty lies in his neglected childhood. Which created in him a deep seated desire for human warmth. I’m no psychologist but can’t see how violence will get him what he most desires. Even if I understood his motivation, it didn’t make me warm to him in any way, particularly when you see the predatory way he creeps around his employer’s fifteen year old daughter. 

This is a novel thick with misery and strife. Too much of it really for me to enjoy. If it had come with more light and shade, and if we’d been given more access to Mary’s side of the relationship, I think I would been more interested. I’d been looking forward to reading this having heard for years about Margiad Evans but in the end it was a disappointment.

Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans: Endnotes

Margiad Evans
Margiad Evans

Margiad Evans was the pseudonym of Peggy Eileen Whistler who though born in England developed a lifelong affinity with the Marches, the area on the English/Welsh border.

She became aquainted with this part of the world when she was a child and visited her aunt and uncle’s farm near Ross on Wye. Her family moved to a house just outside Ross when she was aged 12. After her marriage she went to live on a nearby farm.

Margiad Evans wrote extensively throughout her life: novels, short stories, autobiography and poems. She kept a journal, often written on scraps of paper or in exercise books. After her death her husband Michael Williams donated many of her letters, journals and diaries to the National Library of Wales.

Turf or Stone was her third novel, published in 1936.

In Death There is Still Joy: Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

We live in an age when people share the most deeply personal aspects of their life with complete strangers.

Magazines are plastered with articles detailing celebrities’ experiences of eating disorders/sexuality/mental health/abuse just to mention a few. And I’m not sure how daytime television would survive if it didn’t have a steady stream of guests willing to open up on issues that a few generations ago would have been considered taboo.

But there’s one topic about which we are strangely reticent even though it affects every one of us. Death. 

t’s a form of denial, a basic human instinct to avoid what is uncomfortable. We even avoid using the actual word. Instead we turn to euphemisms which sound less direct, less harsh, less final in a sense. We don’t say a friend/relative died, they “passed away” or “passed over” or simply “passed”. 

The Fear Factor

Our own death is more difficult to contemplate than that of our loved ones. So we don’t prepare for it. We treat it a bit like those tax return demands, a task we know we have to deal with – but at heart we’re afraid. So the longer we can delay the task, the happier we are.

Few of us would, out of choice, spend our days surrounded by people whose time on this earth can be measured in weeks or days. 

But that’s exactly the world Rachel Clarke decided to embrace. After more than a decade as a doctor who fought to save lives, using every drug and machine at her disposal, she changed direction. Now as a consultant in palliative medicine she cares for people whose battle for life is over. A specialism that’s little understood or valued.

If neurosurgeons are the rock stars of the medical hierarchy – its sexy, alpha, heart-throb heroes – then palliative care doctors are the dowdy support act. A low-rank medical speciality, we lurk in the shadows, too close to death for comfort …. No one in the hospital is quite sure what we get up to, and usually does not wish to know either. Death is taboo for many reasons, not least the fear that it might just be catching.

Dear Life begins as an autobiography, charting Rachel Clarke’s life as the daughter of a hard-working dedicated GP. She considered following in his footsteps but instead followed the path of literature and the arts, becoming a television documentary maker. 

Rachel Clarke, author of Dear Life

In her late 20s she re-assessed her life, abandoned the broadcasting world and retrained as a doctor. What she witnessed in the emergency unit, convinced her to make palliative care her specialism. 

Despite my love of acute and emergency medicine, I found myself drawn to patients with life-limiting illness precisely, in part, because some other doctors ran a mile.

Learned Detachment

Clarke is critical of doctors she heard curtly despatching their patients to the “palliative dustbin” as if they felt that once in a terminal phase of illness, human lives were no longer worth engaging with. But she tempers her censure; acknowledging that from detachment is an essential requirement in the medical profession. It’s a lesson that begins the day that an aspiring doctor begins their medical training.

We might have chosen medicine because we wanted to help people, but doctors could not and should not allow their compassion free rein. … The challenge then for every doctor was to acquire sufficient detachment to be useful while maintaining one’s essential humanity.

That need for detachment is put severely to the test when death comes right to the door of Rachel Clarke’s own life. In his 70s her father was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Clarke was ever the professional as they discussed at length his diagnosis and his treatments. But as his health deteriorated and it was clear he was close to death, it was the daughter who took over, who bathed him just as he had once bathed her in childhood.

Candid and Sensitive

Dear Life is candid yet overwhelmingly sensitive and moving account of what it’s like to work in the world of the dying. A uncomfortable book to read you might think, one that would be far too depressing; too emotional, too heartbreaking. 

Of course it’s emotional. Of course it tugs at the heart. How could it not? But Rachel Clarke shows that even when people are at their lowest ebb, they have the capacity to love and embrace moments of unadulterated joy.  Dear Life gives us a wedding, a fiercely independent woman coiffured and dressed in pearls for her final bridge session and an elderly woman who had lovingly frozen portions of fruit and fish so her husband would be able to survive without her.

These anecdotes were the ones that brought the tears to my eyes. Because they’re not about death, but about life and how people like Rachel Clarke help us prepare to say goodbye in a way that truly means we can rest in peace.

Dear Life is quite simply a stunning book. I urge you to cast aside any fears it will touch on too many nerves and get yourself a copy. I guarantee you will not regret it.

%d bloggers like this: