I suspect there’s no statistical basis to prove this, but the Grim Reaper seems to have the odds on his side this year. I’m thinking about the deaths of world famous artists such as David Bowie and Prince, Patty Duke and Alan Rickman, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee and Jenny Diski (whose final interview is on Page 22). Close to home we lost the award-winning writer Gillian Mears a fortnight ago.
Such thoughts turned me this week to Cory Taylor’s just-published book, one that comes with a no-nonsense title: Dying: A Memoir (Text, $24.99, HB). It may sound odd to say this, but this generous, thoughtful, loving — and fearful — book about dying is also a celebration of living. Julian Barnes, author of the brilliant Nothing to be Frightened Of, puts it well in a cover blurb: “We should all hope for as vivid a looking-back, and as cogent a looking-forward, when we reach the end ourselves.”
Taylor, 60, is a Brisbane-based screenwriter who wanted to write novels from childhood but came to it later in life, winning acclaim for Me and Mr Booker (2012) and My Beautiful Enemy (2013). I recommend both. When she published them, few people, including her publisher, knew she had cancer. She was diagnosed with melanoma in 2005, just before her 50th birthday. She didn’t tell anyone but her husband Shin, their two adult sons and a few close friends. The cancer spread, treatment options ended and “it was then that I became certain I was coming to the end. I didn’t know when, or exactly how, I was going to die, but I knew I wasn’t going to make it much beyond my sixtieth birthday.” This book, written beautifully and simply, will be her last work. I’ve underlined so many passages. She writes about her life, which she has loved and will miss dearly, and about her mother and father, both of whom died in nursing homes. She also talks about assisted dying, a cause Mears supported, and our distant relationship with death.
“This is why I started writing this book. Things are not as they should be. For many of us, death has become an unmentionable thing, a monstrous silence. But this is no help to the dying, who are probably lonelier now than they’ve ever been.” And that is another reason for this book: “… that is what I am doing now, in this, my final book: I am making a shape for my death, so that I, and others, can see it clearly. And I am making dying bearable for myself.” She goes on to make a wish: “I like to think that, long after I’m gone, someone somewhere might read a book or essay of mine in the last remaining library or digital archive and be touched in some way.” That wish, I think, has been granted in her lifetime. A few weeks ago I wrote about Pico Iyer’s absorbing book The Man Within My Head: Graham Greene, My Father and Me. As it happens I made contact with Iyer at the time (we have a mutual friend in Nicolas Rothwell) to ask if he’d like to review a new book on film director Terrence Malick. That sort of not-quitecoincidental happening is one of the strange and pleasurable sides of this job: I was reading Iyer’s four-year-old book at night and each morning receiving emails from him about the Malick piece, which is on this page today. Malick is my favourite living filmmaker, but I think Iyer makes some insightful observations about the challenge of his work. Quote of the week: “Hilary Mantel: ‘Kinsella in His Hole’.” If I ate breakfast cereal I would have sputtered on seeing that sprawled above the masthead of the May 19 London Review of Books. What on earth had the dual Man Booker Prize-winning novelist uncovered about provocative Australian poet John Kinsella? Well, nothing that we know of, as the blurb refers to Mantel’s harrowing short story in the issue, which centres on a school caretaker named Sammy Kinsella.