When Breath Becomes Air
The Bodley Head
Review: Chantel Erfort
There’s nothing quite as sad as reading a book, knowing from the get-go, that the main protagonist is going to die.
But before you get upset with me for revealing this, don’t worry: it doesn’t ruin one word of the story.
Instead, it makes every moment spent reading this book, all the more special, with the reader being given an intimate look into a life coming to an end.
And as the writer opts to focus on life instead of his impending death, so too, does he lure the reader away from obsessing over whether his death will come on this page, or the next, or the next.
The protagonist in question is the writer himself, Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant young neurosurgery specialist in the final years of his residency, who penned When Breath Becomes Air in the final years of his life.
Paul was in his prime as a medical professional, young, married and in love, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
As skilled with the English language as he was with his medical instruments, Paul tells a deeply touching tale of a doctor who suddenly finds the shoe on the other foot, having to learn to be patient – and a patient – and to entrust decisions no man should have to make about his own life, to his doctor.
Having recently had someone close to me undergo several neurosurgical procedures, I have found myself seeking out books on the topic, hungry to understand how so much can go wrong when the brain is affected – and what drives the men and women who specialise in a kind of surgery so delicate.
While in Do No Harm, David Marsh, a surgeon at the end of his career, was able to look back at his younger self with a sense of confidence and critically assess the mistakes he had made, Paul writes with the passion and urgency of a young doctor pursuing his life’s dream with the acute knowledge that it may soon escape his grasp.
He writes with tenderness about his relationship with his wife Lucy, with the relationship between them almost taking on a life of its own and becoming a character in its own right. A scholar of both literature and medicine, Paul’s reflections on his illness and neurosurgery are philosophical and insightful.
When Breath Becomes Air is beautifully written, uncluttered by dramatic descriptions of, or unnecessary build-ups to, life-changing events.
Paul’s writing is sincere and his style of storytelling, gentle. And when he finally slipped away, though the moment was understated, I truly felt sad but all the richer for having read this remarkable man’s reflections on death and the true meaning of life.