This book was supposed to be about death and whilst in the obvious sense it was, it was more about fulfilling life’s unfulfilled ambitions.
I feel bad to write a negative review but the writing was mediocre and made palpably worse by the foreword in which Abraham Verghese writes “but it was only when I received the pages that you now hold in your hands two months after Paul had died…after reading the book you are about to read, I confess, I felt inadequate, there was an honesty, a truth in the writing that took my breath away. Be ready, be seated, see what courage sounds like… But here’s the thing I must come back to: the prose was unforgettable. Out of his pen he was spinning gold.”
This foreword sets Paul’s writing up for instantaneous failure. As soon as I read this line it pissed me off. It’s hyperbolic like the opening to some broadway performance. It’s performative language written in the way it thinks it ought to write. It’s dishonest and unfortunately the rest of the book felt that way, too. It never pulled at the emotive strings. Only his wife’s part at the end was able to do that and even then only somewhat. But at least her writing was not performative; you could see she had no ambition to write and thus it came across so much more sincere, even if not profound.
This book got me thinking about good reviews from notable publications and famous people that publishers put on the backs of books. After 30 or so years of reading, I’ve come to the conclusion that those quotes can only dissuade me from buying a book and don’t work much in persuading me. I would much rather be told a little bit about the book’s contents. The hard sell on the front and backs of books puts me off.
Coming back to Kalanithi, I’m sorry to report that the account provided nothing of illuminating consumption. Indeed I also did not find that it was a story about death and confronting it and rather more about writing to fulfil a dying man’s lifelong ambition to be a published writer. He spends the entire memoir talking about his academic and then professional record and aspirations. There is little that comes across in the way of his tangible relationships. Even the man who pens his foreword was not a friend but barely an acquaintance who got to know Kalanithi more after his death. I struggled to feel anything for Kalanithi which is unusual for me as I’m prone to crying just looking at the beauty of a tree or the veins on a leaf, never mind a sunset or reading about a man dying from lung cancer. How he managed to make me bereft of feelings is a high achievement that made me question whether that was the result of his medical training? In order to survive the medical environment, even Paul speaks about how doctors are trained almost to dehumanise themselves and their environment. They are taught to remove their emotions in order to better handle the precariousness and fragility of life within their professional hands. Of course Paul insists that he was not like this but unfortunately whilst he may not have been this sort of doctor, unfortunately, as a writer he lacks the ability to humanise his own experience. There is a lack of emotional intelligence in his writing.
Moreover, I really didn’t like the strong American ambition; of working the body down to a pulp that this book describes persistently and then packages it up as if it is a thing to be admired. This is not the way to live life. Indeed one of Paul’s friends Geoff commits suicide from the pressures of the medical profession. And I hated how Paul’s oncologist encouraged him to go back to gruelling brain surgeries despite the fact that his body was buckling under the pressure and he no doubt became more ill because of the burden of his professional work.
I admired Paul’s striving for excellence before his cancer diagnosis but after that the story takes a turn that I did not approve of. Reading this was incredibly depressing, it did not inspire any hope of a life after death. It was more an uninspiring statement that death can come at you from anywhere and at anytime. That’s it. There is nothing about cherishing time with loved ones, regrets, repentance, forgiveness, the hereafter and I was surprised by the lack of theological injection within a story where the writer even suggests that if he hadn’t become a doctor or writer, he thinks he would have become a pastor. Really?? I really feel like there’s a huge lack of self awareness in this writing.
For more inspiring and incredibly less performative literary works on this topic, I would recommend readers obtain the rather more shorter beauty (barely 70 pages), A Grief Observed, written by C S Lewis. I believe this is the text that Kalanithi’s wife Lucy even cited from at the end in her epilogue. There is a far greater wealth of literature on death that is more inspiring than this book. Another better book is by Asmaa Hussain, “A Temporary Gift” about her grief through the process of suddenly losing her husband [he was killed by a sniper during a protest in Egypt], in that book she confronts the fragility of life, the temporary nature of the gifts Allah sends into our lives and confronts our ultimate purpose and return to God.
Throughout this book Paul’s writing teetered on the spectrum between sounding too clinical or trying too hard to sound poetic with descriptions about the moonlight or some other such descriptive that added no value or weight to the words being expressed. This was what Verghese described as “spun gold”. There was a disconnect and lack of tangible human vulnerability. I didn’t *feel* his ordeal through the language he used to express himself. I highly doubt that he didn’t have those emotions within him which is why I felt disappointed by the book and all that it was supposed to represent.
If the book had had less hype attached to it perhaps I would not have been so disappointed. The fact that that foreword was chosen to sit at the front of the book also speaks volumes about the ego that comes attached with the medical profession. I’d take keener interest in reading his medical publications but even still, Paul’s writing style leaves the more sincere reader with much to be desired. His desire to be a writer does not equate with his ability to actually be a good one. He was a great neurosurgeon and I think it would have been better left at that.
And whilst on the subject of medical authors, may I also take this opportunity to recommend reading The Gut by Guilia Enders, a book that I have bought more times than any other and gifted to people simply because it was so well informed and written in a very unique way. Guilia Enders is a German gastroenterologist and a writer sticking to a subject she is passionate about as well as knowledgeable.