‘The Last Act of Love’ by Cathy Rentzenbrink ****

I remember there being quite a lot of hype around when Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir, The Last Act of Love, was published in 2015, and I have been keen to read it since.  It is focused upon Rentzenbrink’s relationship with her adored younger brother, Matty, and the aftereffects of a tragic accident he was involved in as a teenager.

The Observer calls her memoir ‘life-affirming’, and author and surgeon Henry Marsh deems it ‘profoundly moving’.  The book’s own blurb describes The Last Act of Love as ‘a true story of a happy family ambushed by loss, the unknown place between life and death, and how to find love and joy in the world even when you know it will never be the same again.’

9781447286394When Rentzenbrink was seventeen, her ‘clever, funny and outgoing’ brother, younger than her by a year, was knocked down by a car when returning from a youth club in rural Yorkshire.  The family had moved to a village pub just a year before the accident, and it was here that Rentzenbrink was alerted to the fact that her brother had had an accident.  At the time, she did not want to disturb her parents, and made her way to the scene in a bystander’s car.  She reflects: ‘Matty was lying in the road.  He looked so long: his body was covered with coats…  I knelt next to him, touched his forehead, stroked his cheek with the back of my fingers.  His eyes were closed.  There was no damage to his face.  I couldn’t see any blood.  I felt for a pulse.  Found it.  Kept my fingers wrapped around his wrist so I could feel the evidence of his life.’

She would soon realise just how serious her brother’s condition was.  Matty was placed into an induced coma after having surgery for a traumatic head injury.  After his operation, Rentzenbrink thinks: ‘Surely someone this fit and strong couldn’t die?  Surely someone who was loved this much couldn’t die?’  Although the family were hopeful at first, he was diagnosed much later as being in a persistent vegetative state, and was unable to walk or speak again.  Rentzenbrink charts his very slow rise out of unconsciousness, into periods of ‘sleep and wake’.  He was tube fed, and unable to make even yes and no responses.  Matty passed away eight years later, in 1998.

During this time, the customers in the pub asked constant questions about Matty, and when he was expected to make a full recovery.  The family tried to be open, but this, writes Rentzenbrink, created its own set of problems: ‘Misunderstanding abounded.  Because we always talked positively and hopefully about Matty, people tended to think he was doing better than he was and were then shocked if they visited him to find that his gaze was either vacant or his eyes looked over to the right…’.

Rentzenbrink begins her memoir with such honesty.  She has gone back, as an adult, to visit the memorial chapel in the hospital which Matty was cared in.  After his passing, she reflects: ‘What strikes me now as it never has before is that I can’t say my prayers went unanswered.  I was given what I asked for.  My brother did not die.  But I did not know that there is a world between the certainties of life and death, that it is not simply a case of one or the other, and that there are many and various fates words than death.  That is what separates the me standing here now by the prayer tree from the girl kneeling in front of the altar all those years ago.  She thought she was living the worst night of her life, but I know now that far worse was to come.’

The tone of the narrative feels fitting for such a memoir.  Rentzenbrink’s writing has clarity and is emotive, but is not so suffused with emotion that anything else is overshadowed.  Despite the heartbreaking nature of the story, I found The Last Act of Love highly readable.  Throughout, Rentzenbrink offers her deepest thoughts, and it does not feel as though she holds anything back.  After Matty contracts his first infection, and then recovers from it, she remembers the following: ‘This was the first time I caught myself wondering if it might have been better if he’d died.  Would Matty have wanted this life?  Unable to do anything except open his eyes, have epileptic fits, occasionally make noises when in pain?  I didn’t allow these thoughts to develop, nor did I see how I could ever voice these to my parents, but they were there.’  She goes on to voice her belief that she should have been injured instead of her brother, and the extreme guilt which she felt in not making the most her life due to the overwhelming waves of grief which filled her.

In less than 250 pages, Rentzenbrink has written a deeply visceral, frank, and poignant memoir, about something which shaped both herself and her family.  She never speaks of herself, or her brother, with pity; rather, she examines the effects of his accident, and some impossible decisions which the family had to make.  She talks quite openly about the way in which she turned to alcohol and sex in order to help herself cope with the situation, and the effects which moving away to attend University had.

One cannot help but be moved by the beautifully written The Last Act of Love.  I shall end my review with this incredibly wise, and profound, comment which Rentzenbrink makes toward the end of her memoir: ‘Sometimes an absence can become as significant in our lives as a presence.’

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Reading the World: ‘Mend the Living’ by Maylis de Kerangal ***

9780857053855Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, which won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017, was first published in France in 2014, and has been translated from its original French by Jessica Moore.  Its critical reception has been incredibly good; M. John Harrison in The Guardian writes that the novel is: ‘Filmically powerful, beautifully translated… [and] glorious’, and Astrid de Larminat in Figaro states: ‘This breathless novel has all the beauty of a Greek tragedy.’  Mend the Living was also longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

Mend the Living takes place over the space of a single day, and essentially tells the story of a heart transplant.  At the beginning of the novel, the heart resides in young Simon Limbeau; he is rendered braindead after a severe car accident following a beautifully evoked surfing trip.  The novel’s opening sentence, which is three hundred words long, begins in the following way, and gives one a great taster of de Kerangal’s prose style: ‘What it is, Simon Limbeau’s heart, this human heart, from the moment of birth when its cadence accelerated while other hearts outside were accelerating too, hailing the event, no one really knows…’.

Following Simon’s death, de Kerangal writes: ‘… and on this night – a night without stars – while it was bone-crackingly cold on the estuary and in the Caux region, while a reflectionless swell rolled along the base of the cliffs, while the continental plateau drew back, unveiling its geological stripes, this heart was sounding the regular rhythm of an organ at rest, a muscle slowly recharging…’.  De Kerangal’s prose is similarly poetic throughout, but does tend to verge upon the pretentious – with its ‘grandiloquent choreographies’, and ‘alveolar intensity’ – from time to time.  It is so vivid and sensual, however, that it gives the reader the opportunity to be present in every single moment depicted.  Moore’s translation is flawless; it must have taken an awful lot of work to render such long, complex sentences, and the style of prose.  Of a lot of interest is Moore’s translation note; she describes the way in which she ‘grappled with Maylis’s labyrinthine phrases’.

De Kerangal captures the uncontrollable grief of Simon’s mother incredibly well: ‘… the past has grown massive all at once, a life-guzzling ogre, and the present is nothing but an ultra-thin threshold, a line beyond which there is nothing recognisable.  The ringing of the phone has cloaked the continuity of time, and before the mirror where her reflection freezes, hands clutching the edges of the sink, Marianne turns to stone beneath the shock.’  The author also makes good use of building tension and creating uncertainty.

Mend the Living is certainly an intelligent and thoughtful novel.  It is not an easy read, per se; one really has to concentrate upon each, almost invariably long sentence.  I am one of the few not to adore it, but Mend the Living is certainly an admirable novel, with so many qualities to it.  The medical elements have clearly been meticulously researched, and the use of each chapter following a different character creates further depth.  Regardless, de Kerangal did not quite capture as much as I would have imagined.

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Mini Reviews: ‘Little Deaths’ and ‘The Memory Book’

Little Deaths by Emma Flint ***
9781509826575‘It’s the summer of 1965, and the streets of Queens, New York shimmer in a heatwave. One July morning, Ruth Malone wakes to find a bedroom window wide open and her two young children missing. After a desperate search, the police make a horrifying discovery. Noting Ruth’s perfectly made-up face and provocative clothing, the empty liquor bottles and love letters that litter her apartment, the detectives leap to convenient conclusions, fuelled by neighbourhood gossip and speculation. Sent to cover the case on his first major assignment, tabloid reporter Pete Wonicke at first can’t help but do the same. But the longer he spends watching Ruth, the more he learns about the darker workings of the police and the press. Soon, Pete begins to doubt everything he thought he knew. Ruth Malone is enthralling, challenging and secretive – is she really capable of murder? Haunting, intoxicating and heart-poundingly suspenseful, Little Deaths is a gripping novel about love, morality and obsession, exploring the capacity for good and evil within us all.’

The premise of Emma Flint’s Little Deaths intrigued me.  At first, her prose, with its element of mixed chronology, felt clever, and really helped to set the scene.  After a while however, the prose began to repeat itself at points, and there was an entire middle section which I found frankly rather dull and drawn out.  The period in which it was set – the mid-1960s in New York – was not very well evoked on the whole.  The background itself faded into the background at times, and the story was not well-grounded in Flint’s chosen period.  The novel did not feel quite consistent, but as is often the case with a murder mystery or thriller, one really has to get to the end to see who the crime was committed by.  In this instance, I guessed the perpetrator incredibly early on, so the whole held no real surprises for me.  Little Deaths is a book which I feel had far more potential than was utilised.


The Memory Book by Lara Avery **** 9781784299248
‘Samantha McCoy has it all mapped out. First she’s going to win the national debating championship, then she’s going to move to New York and become a human rights lawyer. But when Sam discovers that a rare disease is going to take away her memory, the future she’d planned so perfectly is derailed before its started. Realising that her life won’t wait to be lived, Sam sets out on a summer of firsts. The first party. The first rebellion. The first friendship. The last love.’

I don’t tend to read YA fiction, but as I am eternally fascinated by memory, the plot of The Memory Book certainly intrigued me.  The narrator, Sammie, is intelligent, which definitely helped to keep my interest as I was reading.  Neither she, nor her condition, are predictable in the least.  Avery’s novel is well structured and effective in its use of multiple voices; it tackles some important issues, and I will be highly recommending it.

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‘After Before’ by Jemma Wayne **

‘After Before’ by Jemma Wayne (Legend Press)

Whilst Jemma Wayne has written short stories and staged a play in London, After Before is her first novel.  It takes place during a British winter, in which ‘three women reach crisis point’. The first character whom we are introduced to is Emily, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who has moved to the safety of anonymous London.  We then meet Vera, a recently converted Christian Londoner, who is struggling to live a moral life, despite dark secrets from her past which threaten to thwart her happiness.  The final woman in the triangle of sorts is Lynn, Vera’s mother-in-law to be, who has succumbed to a terminal illness and is ‘consumed by bitterness and resentment’ in consequence.

Emily is a lonely character, and Wayne exemplifies her vulnerability through her actions: ‘Emily was athletic once, strong, but now she was a little unsteady on her feet’.  She has been asked to leave her aunt and uncle’s home for an undisclosed reason, and is now living alone in a council flat near Golders Green.  Whilst she is an interesting character, Vera and Lynn both feel flat against her, and not at all realistic.  Vera sees herself as reformed, choosing religion over her previously unhealthy lifestyle due to a new relationship: ‘It is after all now 602 days since Vera last took cocaine, 433 since she’s smoked anything heavier than a regular Camel Light… and exactly 366 days since she’s had sex’.  Early in the novel, she becomes engaged to Luke, whose ‘thing’ is going to church.  Luke’s mother, Lynn, feels resentful of her sons trying to take charge of her condition as soon as she reveals that she has terminal cancer: ‘even her death was being appropriated by others’.

The third person perspective has been used throughout, and acts as a distancing tool of sorts, keeping the reader an observer of the scenes which unfold, but never allowing its audience to truly feel a part of the action.  The use of both present and past tenses makes the entirety a little halting, and does stop it flowing as a novel should.  The conversational patterns add to this, and exchanges between characters often feel a little jolting and unnatural.

Some of the sentences which Wayne crafts are lovely – ‘But during that final summer [at University] they’d swapped their dreams for books that they devoured in chunks, feeding each other morsels, like wolves’ – but unfortunately, these are sparse in terms of the length of the novel.   A lot of the other prose is stiff and rather too matter-of-fact.  Many of the details which are introduced are often repeated more than once, which becomes a little wearing.  In consequence, it does not feel as though an equal amount of care can be found throughout the novel.

Whilst the idea that three women from different backgrounds, all going through existential crises of sorts, is interesting, it does not feel as though it has been executed as well as it perhaps could have been here.  A lot of the emphasis within After Before is placed upon religion, and this hinders the plot a little sometimes, particularly with regard to the sheer volume of detail which Vera’s ‘conversion’ is given.  Whilst it is not badly written, After Before is just not compelling or different enough to set it apart from the swathes of contemporary literature which are published every year.  There is sadly nothing unique about it, either in terms of its plot, its characters or its setting, and it ultimately feels that an opportunity to craft a memorable and thought-provoking novel has been lost.

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