Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

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.

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