Saturday 16 December 2017

A terminal cancer story -- when life imitated art. . .

When John Boyne's The Boy With the Striped Pjyamas was first released, the publishers refused to divulge the book's content on the dust jacket, believing that readers would shy away from the concentration camp topic and miss out on a brilliant book. Perhaps Mary McCarthy's publishers, Poolbeg, should have done the same for this touching novel which features another taboo topic. The main storyline concerns a woman with terminal cancer.

A successful author of four novels, McCarthy began writing this book in 2004 to help her cope with her brother's untimely death from cancer and she hoped it would help others facing this trauma. In a horrible twist of fate, Mary herself was diagnosed with terminal cancer in March this year. She took the news stoically and with good humour and though it was difficult to write, she bravely finished her novel.

Emer is the woman in the story. Though she has a different type of cancer and different life circumstances to McCarthy, the prognosis is the same. The prospect of a life cut short. In Emer's fictional case, her doctors give her six months.

As she accepts the inevitability of her diagnosis her friends rally round wanting to make her last days more comfortable, and equally she wants to enjoy her remaining time and leave her friends and family with good memories.

She sets herself goals and questions who she is and what life is all about. She manages to achieve a little immortality by publishing a book of poetry and at the same time her beloved niece, the daughter of her dead sister, is expecting a baby, which gives her hope and completes the circle of life. She deals with the reactions of friends and family to her news -- some can't handle it, including an ex-boyfriend who turns up out of the blue. There is a race against time to try and heal a family rift. And then there's Emer's own reaction, from terror to anger to acceptance. Along the way, she learns some valuable lessons.

Although there can only be one outcome to Emer's story, it is beautifully written, without a trace of self-pity and is ultimately uplifting and rewarding to read.

Like Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club, another recently published book on the same theme, After The Rain will resonate with anyone who has lived through or been touched by 'the Big C'.

It is not so much a harrowing tale of death but rather a poignant celebration of life. If you don't shy away from this novel, keep the tissues handy.

Ann Dunne

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