For the Joy of Reading: Undying: A Love Story

This book is extraordinary.   It is Michel Faber’s elegy for his wife, who died of cancer.   In the Foreword he says that he is not a writer of poetry.   Or rather that, before she died, it took him ages to write a poem that he considered to be acceptable.   Then the need came upon him, and that need was to deal with loss, with grief, with bereavement.   And so we have gained this remarkable series of poems, this poetic symphony to Eva, the love of his life, the love that will not die while he is alive.

First, to talk about the words.   It is hard to believe that a word like myeloma, which sounds so mellifluous, describes something that is so deadly, but it does.   It is difficult to understand that necrosis, so soft in the mouth, is fatal, but it is.   It is not easy to understand that Thalimax and Dexamethasone are treatments to hold a killer disease at bay.   And yet these words slip into the poetry, alongside the explanations of what they are and what they do.   Because how else would we understand what is happening?   How could we know?

And while he is introducing us to the horrors that lie behind these words, Michel Faber does not forget to remind us of the banalities of ordinary life – of the use of electric blankets, of the pleasure of eating in a Thai restaurant, of the clothes that we wear, even of the need to use the toilet.   This is an account of a life ending, and no detail is too insignificant.   It is an account of how his wife was stolen from him, of the suffering involved, of the grief caused, of the bereavement endured.   And the grief comes in the daily tasks, such as opening a kitchen cupboard and finding some tamarind.   It is things like this that are sharp reminders that she is no longer there.

Anyone who has had to deal with the death of a loved one will recognise what Michel Faber has been through.   He takes us through all the emotions of bereavement: grief, bewilderment, anger, pain, confusion, survival.   It is that last one that is the most difficult: the bereaved is still alive and their loved one is not.

This is not a eulogy.   It is certainly not a hagiography.   It is, I suppose, a celebration.   But not in the limited way that the word is sometimes used at funerals.

I do not have the words.   This book is extraordinary.   You must read it.


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