Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls

A few years ago I had the privilege of working in the library of a well-known children's hospital. I worked with children in all stages of disease, including some who eventually died. And peripherally, I watched their families deal with their conditions. Sally Nicholls' debut novel, Ways to Live Forever, completely resonated with my memories of that time. It is remarkable in capturing the experience of a dying child with a minimum of sentimentality, and with an absolutely convincing first-person narrator.

Sam is an eleven year old with leukemia whose doctors estimate he has a year to live. He has many questions about death, ranging from practical ("does it hurt to die?") to philosophical ("why does God make kids get ill?). Together with Felix, his best friend who is also terminally ill, Sam tries to work out some answers, and also to pack as much living as he can into his remaining time.

I loved Sam as a character. He is inquisitive and thoughtful, and his insights and investigations seem completely right for his age and experience. There is some unexpected humour, as in the seance scene, where Sam, Felix and Sam's sister Ella try to communicate beyond the grave with an ouija board and a jelly bean. They call up the spirit of "Marian Twanet" ("Pack it in! I said. "Marie Antoinette's not spelled like that") who assures them that being undead is "BORING" and that she spends her days drinking gin and eating cake. Sam's not taken in by this fakester spirit, but considers the possibility that his grandfather is keeping an eye on his grandmother from the other side (she smells his pipe whenever she is particularly unhappy). Although the evidence is circumstantial, Sam believes that "if I were grandad, I'd want to visit too."

One of this book's many strengths is how it shows the effect of Sam's terminal illness on his family. Each person has their own way of coping, and how each one responds to this family crisis reveals a great deal. Small triumphs and connections are captured with delicacy, and grief is never allowed to become overwhelming. I did cry at the end, but Sam's death, surrounded by his family, felt very loving. Ways to Live Forever takes us through Sam's journey in a way that feels uncontrived and true.

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