As I mentioned about my first batch of September releases, the nonfiction was on two broad themes: books about books (two still to come), and books about death (with What Remains? by Rupert Callender still to come). Here’s two from the latter camp.
And Finally: Matters of Life and Death by Henry Marsh
Marsh is a retired brain surgeon and the author of Do No Harm, one of the very best medical memoirs out there, as well as Admissions. As he was turning 70 a couple of years ago, two specific happenings prompted this third book. One: he volunteered for a brain scan as part of a medical study and, though he was part of a healthy cohort, was appalled at the degeneration his results showed. The other was that, after years of ignoring symptoms, he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer and a someday, far-off mortality started to seem a lot closer. The pandemic amplified his health worries and sense of isolation, so he threw himself into various domestic projects like clearing his loft, home renovations, and remodelling his daughter’s dollhouse to give to his beloved granddaughters.
As in Admissions, the book flits between topics: the hypoxia he experienced on a trip to Nepal, surgical mistakes made (he once operated on the wrong side of the neck), balcony gardens he created on his hospital’s neurosurgery wards, a potter friend who died of a brain tumour, and so on. Along with details of his cancer treatment, he discusses its typical course and waxes lyrical about the meaning of dreams, what we know about consciousness, and the fairy stories he made up to tell his granddaughters over Zoom during lockdown. He acknowledges his own limitations – he was conned not once but twice by cowboy builders, and declined to operate on a young Ukrainian doctor, leaving it to a colleague – and speaks out against technologies to extend the human lifespan and in favour of assisted dying.
In general, the book feels quite scattered and repetitious. However, I appreciated Marsh’s usual candour and could see how he would want to finish this quickly and get it out into the world, even if it would have benefited from further editing to make each chapter a more polished stand-alone essay. The good news is that his scan results were promising as of spring 2022 and I’ve seen on Twitter that he’s now in Ukraine with Rachel Clarke to speak at the Lviv BookForum. Is it selfish to hope we’ll get another book from him?
With thanks to Jonathan Cape for the free copy for review.
Sinkhole: A Legacy of Suicide by Juliet Patterson
In December 2008, poet Juliet Patterson’s father died by suicide, hanging himself from a bridge near his Minnesota home in the middle of the night. When the news came, Patterson was recovering from a car accident the week before and in the middle of debates with her partner Rachel about whether they would have a child. Her father had been in his late seventies, in fine health and with full mental capacity; he left his affairs ship-shape, and his suicide note was mostly practicalities about insurance, bank accounts and car ownership.
On the face of it, he wasn’t an obvious candidate, not someone you would worry about. Yet there was family history: both of Patterson’s parents lost their fathers to suicide. And there was a bizarre direct connection between their two Kansas-based families: her maternal grandmother’s best friend became her paternal grandfather’s secretary and mistress.
Patterson returns to Kansas on research trips to unearth her grandfathers’ lives: William a pottery manager who later struck it rich through Gulf Oil and Edward a New Deal Democratic congressman who lost his second bid for re-election. She pairs archival evidence – photographs and newspaper clippings – with skillfully imagined accounts of what each of her three ancestors did and felt on the day of his suicide. Her thinking is guided especially by the work of Edwin Shneidman, a psychologist who studied suicide notes.
Throughout, sinkholes, which are common in Kansas due to coal mining (one even opened up near her grandmother’s house), are both reality and metaphor for the chasm a suicide leaves. This gorgeously written family memoir approaches its difficult subject matter with brave tenderness and is one of my nonfiction favorites from the year so far.
Published by Milkweed Editions in the USA. With thanks to Nectar Literary for the advanced e-copy for review.