Cover design by Christabella Design
Cover illustration (sneakers) by Ben Sanders; images Stocksy and Shutterstock
Megan Albany’s first novel is funny and heart-breaking in equal measure, a skilfully wrought study of the difficult art of dying in our society, told in the voice of a relatively young woman dying of cancer.
We also see the story of this dying from the point of view of her husband Clint and briefly from that of her young son.
Vivian is a no holds barred sort of person and she invites us into her death in that way. She’s direct, amusing, tragic. We are privy to the smallest personal details of her life as her illness takes hold, the things she feels she must do before she goes and the things she decides do not matter.
The story is also peopled by her family and a couple of close friends. It’s full of memory, of painful experiences from her childhood and young womanhood that have made her what she is at the end.
The author paints us a very clear picture of this woman’s life, past and present, right down to the nitty gritty of her Pokemon games with Ethan. The very mundanity of some of it is somehow terribly sad.
It is a mark of the immense capacity of this author that she can turn on a sixpence from deep tragedy akin to the Shakespearean to ribald and profane hilarity.
Her big blustery friend Marsha aka Aunty Sugar keeps her spirits up with her no-nonsense style of caring. We’re not fooled for a minute by her downright rude comments – ‘Are you dead yet?’ – she’s a marshmallow, who we know will be there after Vivian dies to take care of whatever is needed.
The ray of sunshine friend Sally adds another dimension – she’s there to take Vivian’s mind to a higher plane and to provide tea, no matter how wryly she is observed.
Isabelle is the hypercritical mother-in-law who nevertheless will be relied on and be reliable to make sure everything runs smoothly in the household when Vivian is gone.
Her sister Catherine is forever the self-indulged, but also a product of that awful childhood we hear about as, with Vivian, she suffers from the cruel excesses of their mentally ill mother.
There are the genuinely kind neighbours who take them in when necessary and who keep a spare set of clothes on hand, ever in bigger sizes as the years go on.
And then there is dear old Clint, an ordinary sort of extraordinary guy, the husband who takes the blows and still embraces Vivian with love, if also with some confusion.
We travel with Viv through the minutiae of her dying days and are with her as she takes her last breath. And then the author throws us yet another jokey line: ‘Clint wakes up, and his eyes are drawn straight to the TV screen just as the circle around Porky Pig starts to shrink. Th-th-th-that’s all, folks.’ Do we laugh or cry? Yes. Yes then, and yes often throughout the story.
This is a book that I found deeply affecting. Most people will eventually have some sort of experiences with death and dying, perhaps with palliative care or with life-threatening illness with their families, themselves or circles of friends.
All will, I am sure find this novel touching, with its acutely tuned language and its delicate sensibility. Megan Albany is an author who understands what it is to be human. She is endlessly compassionate, insightful and a consummate weaver of words.
Thank you to Hachette for my review copy and to Megan for such a rich conversation about dying and about this remarkable work.