Our society’s interest in death has been on the rise of late, and books on the subject are now numerous—and excellent! There is even a whole new genre of memoirs by young parents (or spouses of parents) dying of cancer. Written by delightfully bright people, they are a pleasure to read on many levels. These first four books are of this genre.
The Iceberg by Marion Coutts
This book, written by the surviving spouse of a writer who died of a brain tumour when their son was a toddler, is my favourite so far. The writing is so fresh, the perspective always unique. Few of the other books here have real surprises to offer; this one is full of them. There is hardly a single predictable word. And Coutts’s honesty on all fronts is absolute; she documents her worst moments as a parent and wife as few writers are brave enough to do—but the empathetic reader will understand how completely burnt out she is as the primary caregiver to both a toddler and a dying man.
This couple was so brilliant! While Coutts is a visual artist and formerly a musician, her husband, Tom Lubbock, was the senior art critic for Britain’s The Independent, and his life was dedicated to writing until the end, even when he struggled to find words as cancer demolished the language and speech centres of his brain. Theirs was a world filled with poetry and art: on their short list of essential topics drawn up to facilitate communication, poetry was one of the items. As Lubbock notes just months before his death when being questioned by a health-care provider about his well-being, he is “still interested”. Intelligent readers will be interested too.
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs
I liked this book so much! I wrote a whole post about it last summer. It was my favourite of the death-memoir genre until I discovered Marion Coutts this year. Riggs was a deeply intelligent, perceptive person and a very fine poet. Her prose is beautiful, with a poet’s eye for story as metaphor, the meaning of each chapter emerging so subtly you might almost wonder if it’s there. There is no preaching nor self-pity here, just the beautifully articulated experience and search for meaning of a young mother facing her own imminent death as well as her mother’s (cancer is endemic in her family) while immersed in the daily dramas of raising her young children alongside her husband.
(Nina’s widower has since partnered with Paul Kalanithi’s widow, Lucy. That they were romantically involved just a month or two after Nina’s death I try not to judge! Best be glad that he so quickly found comfort in his grief.)
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul was just about to complete his many years of training to become a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He and his wife Lucy (also a doctor) hadn’t yet started their family, but they decided to do so without delay, knowing he didn’t have long to live. Much of the book is about his medical training, however; he runs out of time to delve with more depth and detail into his time as both a new father and a dying man. This book is much loved by readers.
Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I’ve loved) by Kate Bowler
I liked this book far more than I expected to. It is wonderfully well written (except for a few moments where a connection was not quite clear to me) and approaches the cancer memoir from the unusual perspective of a religious historian. Bowler is a Christian herself, but her area of scholarship is the Prosperity Gospel, a sect of Christianity founded on the belief that one’s faith will cause God to deliver everything one desires, including material things and money (most televangelists are of this type). Bowler grapples with this notion and her own inadvertent attachment to it as she comes to terms with letting go of her toddler son and a husband she has been with since they were fifteen. Bowler responds to her diagnosis with humour, honesty about the hard parts, and a remarkably positive spirit—so positive that now and then her cheerfulness becomes a little too cheerleady. I don’t recommend her Instagram page.
Other Memoirs about Cancer, Illness, Death, and Grief
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Joan Didion is a magnificent writer, and this is a compelling, though hardly cheering, book. In it she recounts the death of her husband, with whom she was extremely close, during the hospitalisation of their daughter with a life-threatening infection, and her own pathological grief.
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
Though her daughter dies the same year as her husband, leaving her alone in her family, Didion writes of the losses in separate books. This one is about the loss of her daughter. If you like Didion’s writing, you should enjoy this book as well.
Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
This is a tiny book (and hence over-priced for what you get), and as my mom said, it’s easy to be grateful despite a terminal diagnosis when you’re already in your eighties. Nevertheless, it is a lovely reflection on the transformative power of gratitude by an excellent writer.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
This memoir is not about cancer, but it is a beautiful account of chronic illness. Given a small snail in a potted violet as a gift, the author soon comes to view this surprisingly remarkable creature as a companion through her long, bedridden days and nights. Bailey is an excellent writer, observing and expanding her own and the snail’s externally diminished worlds with fascinating detail and insight.
The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde
I am sure this one is exceptional because Audre Lorde was an amazing writer and thinker, but my library doesn’t have it. I will get my hands on it soon! I recommend it in any case.
Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor
I am going to take this one out of the library next! It was very favourably reviewed.