Cancer. For a simple 2-syllable word, there’s a lot of baggage there. For all the negative connotations though, I think there’s an underlying comfort that’s afforded to the world’s readership by the canon of cancer memoirs that allow us to feel that for all the degeneration and destruction, the army of sufferers go down fighting the valiant fight. We read of the bravery and the wars that people fought against the silent killer. We rest our heads at night, sorrowful for the loss of the companion we have trod alongside through several hundred pages but consoled by the thought that at least facing adversity, our narrators raised themselves to previously unimagined heights ofcharacter which remained hidden until the evil of cancer required them face their inner-selves.
This is not that kind of cancer memoir. If you are looking for a book to assuage your fears, to make you sleep easier at night, a cancer memoir with pep, then this is not the memoir for you. Neither would I have expected it to be from such a writer as Hitchens. Hitchens’ death from oesophageal cancer is brutally recounted here. There’s not a whole lot of pep and it doesn’t leave you thinking cancer does anything other than kill you, by increments, stealing away parts of you that you couldn’t even imagine at the outset. There’s very little euphemism – it’s not a battle, a journey, a mountain to climb. It’s cancer – two syllables and an odd sense of symmetry. It wouldn’t be Hitch if there wasn’t some discussion of religious belief or lack thereof but this is not the defining factor of this book. It is a personal book not a polemic. This is exemplified by the final chapter – unfinished notes that were written as cancer overtook Hitchens. This chapter, unpolished, unfinished, from a writer whose words are normally so carefully chosen is more telling and poignant than all that precedes it. If there is one unnecessary digression for me, it is the final chapter written and narrated by Hitchens’ wife. In a book that refuses to trade on the sentimentalism of cancer when Hitchens is in control, it seems unnecessary to do so once he has left the building.
I don’t think that I can say I enjoyed this book – it was too brutal & real to enjoy the chronicle of this death foretold. The question, though, is whether this is a worthwhile book to read. To that, I can answer a resounding ‘Yes’. It is an antidote to the sweeter, more palatable side of cancer. There’s a reality to Hitchens’ writing that serves to remind us that underneath the pep, cancer is an ugly disease that exerts a toll on its sufferers that we only scratch the surface of.
I finished this at the end of my 5 mile long run – a difficult book for an easy run.