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.
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.
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.
I’m still on the quest I started in 2019 to bring a degree of control over my TBR stack. Step 5 in my 9 point plan was to take a close look at the books that have been on my shelves, unread, for at least five years.
When I did a count at the start of 2019, the total was 95. I’ve been slowly making inroads into the stack by reading those books or giving them away unread (I confess that more have been given away than have been read).
Those of you who follow Kate at Books are My favourite And Best will have heard of Sample Saturday. It’s where she looks at all the samples on her Kindle and decides which to part company with and which to keep.
I’m taking a leaf out of her book and using this approach to help me make decisions about all the physical and e books books remaining on my “owned but unread” shelves.
Let’s kick off this series with a trio of books that were bought on a whim.
Gold Boy Emerald Girl by the Chinese-American author Yiyun Li is a 2011 collection of short stories, or vignettes about modern China. The Guardian review described it as gloriously stark group of nine tales about people who are frustrated, alone in the world, and often railing against it.
I bought this purely because it was in on sale at a ridiculously low price in The Works right at the time when I was trying to expand the geographic scope of my reading. I didn’t pay enough attention to the author’s biography so didn’t realise at the time she is the Chinese-American author Yiyun Li
Since I’m not a fan of short stories I think this is one I feel comfortable about sending to a new home.
The Verdict: Set Free
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
I bought this 2011 in Chicago airport while returning from a trip to the USA. I was in a hurry to get to my departure gate but needed something as a back up in case the book I already had, proved to be a dud. I rushed into the only bookshop in the airport and got swayed by the assistant’s recommendation. Of course I never even opened the book.
It’s a non fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World Fair, focusing on two key individuals. The architect responsible for the construction and a fake doctor who turned out to be a serial killer. He’d built a hotel near the fair site to which he lured his victims.
I’m curious how these two strands get woven together.
The Verdict: Reprieve
Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon
I honestly don’t know where my brain was on the day I bought this. I must have confused it with an entirely different book. It’s a collection of sixteen essays. In some Chabon explains how he came to write a few of his best known works. In others he defends his work in genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and comics.
Since I have only a vague idea of who Chabon is and I have little interest in any of the genres mentioned, this is not earning a place on my shelves.
The Verdict: Set Free
This month we begin with Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar a novel I know little about except that the island in question is being destroyed by rising rising sea levels.
I’m picking up that eco theme for my first book. We’re heading south in search of warmer climes. Our destination is the Caribbean. In Archipelago by Monique Roffey, a father and daughter flee their home on the island of Trinidad when heavy rains are forecast. They are still scarred by the family tragedy that occurred only a year earlier when a torrent of muddy water destroyed their home. As they sail via archipelegos along the Venezuelan and Colombian coast towards the Galapagos Islands, they see the damaging effect of tourism on fragile natural environments.
My next link is to another novel which reflects on the issues of climate change. Riverflow by Alison Layland takes us to a small riverside community that rises up in protest at the threat their fields and woods will be destroyed by a fracking operation. Tensions mount as the rain beats down relentlessly and the river rises to an ominously high level.
Floods have sadly become a very topical issue here in Wales in recent weeks. Storm Dennis brought chaos when river levels rose to unprecedented levels, leaving thousands of homes and businesses under water. Environmentalist experts have warned we can expect these “once in a generation” events to happen more frequently as the climate warms up.
For days local newspapers, television and radio stations talked about little else other than the floods. But that topic has now been pushed down the news agenda by the prospect of a Coronovirus pandemic.
Which gives me my third link.
In Station 11 by Emily St John Mandel, the world is gripped by a flu pandemic so virulent its victims die within 48 hours. In a few short weeks Georgia Flu sweeps across the globe and claims the lives of 99.99 per cent of the world’s population. The few survivors must learn to live without power, mechanised transport or antibiotics. (talk of antibacterial hand washes, toilet paper and Happy Birthday to You on repeat cycle are long past).
I wish I could offer you something less depressing but it doesn’t get any better because my next book gives us something else to worry about: nuclear war.
The Last by Hanna Jameson opens shortly after a nuclear war destroys much of the Western world. Twenty guests at a hotel deep in the Swiss countryside learn the truth in text messages sent hurriedly by their loved ones in the destroyed cities. Cut off from the outside world and fearful whether help will arrive, when they discover the body of a young girl they are confronted with another fear: that one of them is a killer.
The Last is a locked room/dystopian fiction mash up. Unfortunately the mix of genres doesn’t work that well. The mystery of who killed the girl fizzles out and the dystopian element lacks true menace. The guests seem more concerned about food supplies than they are about the risk of radiation spreading to their part of the world.
Nevil Shute did a far better job of conveying the imminent threat of radiation fallout. On the Beach details the experiences of a mixed group of people in Australia, one of the few habitable places left on earth after a nuclear war.
As monitoring reports indicate the steady southward progression of the deadly radiation, the Australian government provides citizens with free suicide pills and injections so they can avoid prolonged suffering. They also despatch a submarine to track down the source of a mysterious and incomprehensible radio signal originating from Seattle, Washington.
Early editions of the book includes the most famous lines from T S Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men:
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Whether the future comes via a bang or a whimper, unless you’re a climate change denier, you’ll know the signs are not good. Fires; floods; melting ice caps; threatened species give us a general idea of the problems we face..
But the author of my final book in this chain argues that we don’t know the half of it yet. The situation is “worse, much worse, than you think.” says David Wallace-Wells, in The Uninhabitable Earth. In short chapters he covers the brutal reality of problems like “Dying Oceans”; “Unbreathable Air” and “Plagues of Warming”. He deliberately sets out to shock – and he succeeded. Though short, it’s an intense read. By the time I got to the end I was in a panic.
And on that sobering note I think it’s time I brought this chain to an end. We started on one small island but ended up thinking about the future of the whole planet. I’ll try to be more up beat in next month’s Six Degrees chain.