‘Survival Lessons’ by Alice Hoffman ****

I purchased Alice Hoffman’s only non-fiction work to date, Survival Lessons, after spotting it on Goodreads.  I very much enjoy her fiction, and find her writing style both immersive and not at all taxing to read.  Survival Lessons is markedly different in its content to her novels; it charts her struggle with breast cancer, and the ensuing feeling which it left about trying to enjoy life in all of its splendour, as well as in heartbreak.

Its blurb says, ‘Wise, gentle, and wry, Alice Hoffman teaches all of us how to choose what matters most’.  I find this description a little disingenuous, sounding, as it does, as though Hoffman is trying to preach to her readers.  What I found in Survival Lessons is something quite different; it is a meditation on life, and all of the tiny pleasures which can be found in our days, despite the adversity we may face on a wider scale.

9781616203146Hoffman immediately begins with an introduction which describes her initial denial at the betrayal of her own body, and the later diagnosis of cancer.  This introduction, whilst brief, feels honest, and is insightful as to both her situation and reasoning.  Her plight gave her, with almost a decade and a half of retrospect added into the mix, the inspiration to write this slim volume: ‘When I found the lump I was convinced I had imagined it.  These things didn’t happen to me.’

At the time of her discovery, Hoffman’s mother was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and her sister-in-law had just passed away from brain cancer.  Of her own diagnosis, she speaks rather honestly of her previous position as caregiver: ‘I was not someone who got cancer.  In fact, I was the person who sat by bedsides, accompanied friends to doctor’s appointments, researched family members’ diseases until I became an expert, went to meetings with lawyers when divorce was the only option, found therapists for depressed teenagers, bought plots at cemeteries, arranged funerals, babysat children and pets.’

It took Hoffman a while to come to terms with her own disease; eventually, she came to recognise that ‘When it comes to sorrow, no one is immune.’  The writing process which Survival Lessons gave her was in itself a form of healing.  Unable to find such a book herself, she decided to put pen to paper in order to try and help others through similar situations, envisaging her work as a ‘guidebook’ or ‘manual’ for trauma survival.

Fifteen years ensued between her diagnosis and the publication of Survival Lessons.  Of the interim, Hoffman states: ‘It took all this time for me to figure out what I would have most wanted to hear when I was newly diagnosed, when I lost the people I loved, when I was deeply disappointed in myself and the turns my life had taken.  In many ways I wrote this book to remind myself of the beauty of life, something that’s all too easy to overlook during the crisis of illness or loss.’

Survival Lessons is varied in terms of its content.  Amongst other things, Hoffman writes about Anne Frank, her childhood hero; the notion of personal tragedy; her parents’ divorce; the loss of her mother; recipes; ageing; grief; and reading.  She urges her readers to ‘read the greats – they’re great for a reason.  They know how to chart the human soul.’  Survival Lessons is made up of a series of short essays and musings, and is therefore easy to dip in and out of.  There are quotes, extracts from poems, illustrations, and accompanying photographs, and this mixed media blends in a lovely and fitting way.  I read Survival Lessons merely because I was curious about its content, but I imagine that it will bring comfort to those in similar situations to Hoffman’s.  Regardless, it is a worthwhile read for everyone; it is so human in its approach, and not exclusive to those who are suffering with anything.  Survival Lessons is a really lovely little book, which I will definitely not be forgetting in a hurry.

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