Tuesday, 28 March 2017

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanthi

I expected to be emotionally drained after reading this one and to be honest (in a weird kind of way) I didn’t mind the thought that I would be. This was backed up by the introduction describing a brilliant young man whose writing was breath taking and whose story was devastating. Emotional rollercoaster of epic proportions was surely in store.

I didn’t mind the beginning of the book although I was slightly surprised when we delved so deeply into Kalanthi's past in what was only a slim book. I was willing to gloss over the large number of references to his search as a youth to finding the meaning of life and what makes us, us as after all this was written by someone forced to ponder that very question. I also found the medical training he did vaguely interesting, I appreciated the reverence he placed in relation to the cadaver he was required to cut open as part of his medical training.

However when it became apparent the actual portion of the book to do with him receiving his diagnosis and receiving treatment was much smaller than the preamble of his youth I was slightly disappointed. Looking back I can appreciate this might be as a result of a man who thought he had more time and therefore whose introduction was more leisurely than the following pages but it did make the book feel unbalanced.

I'm not sure how I thought the book would end, Kalanthi was always going to become too ill at some point to be able to carry on writing and the book would have to be picked up by someone (which it was expertly by his wife) however I found I wanted more depth around his cancer treatment, his diagnosis, his options. I felt that the basics weren't fully covered, maybe because he was such an intelligent surgeon talking about a subject he knew a lot about he forgot his audience might not be of similar understanding. Why couldn’t they just remove the cancer? What are mutations? I know very little about this topic (thank goodness) but wanted to know more to further my understanding. So often books about people suffering from cancer are not approached from a medical point of view, or if they are they are medical textbooks not sold in Sainsburys and certainly beyond my remit. Here was a brilliant opportunity to provide a medical viewpoint on cancer to a layman but it just didn’t compute.

So if it didn’t stack up medically then perhaps it was all about the emotional content – a highly intelligent, driven young husband and father dying too soon. But it didn’t quite stack up here either. I couldn’t relate to him and I found him very selfish to go back to work. I did understand that this was him, to loose being a surgeon was to loose himself but I found myself really annoyed that he wouldn’t seek to spend more time with his wife or his family.

One member of the group summed it up quite well by saying the forward and the part by his wife just didn’t match up with the man in the middle. The person his wife and the editor(?) described wasn’t there on the pages inbetween.

I must offset the above with the viewpoints of at least 3 of the group who in contrast thought this book was outstanding. 'One of the best books I have ever read, challenging but brilliant' was a quote from one of them. They cried, they understood his viewpoint, they backed his decisions and marked it with 9's and 10s. Scores ranged from 2 – 10 with mine somewhere inbetween. I much preferred Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, not written from a dying mans standpoint and not medical but I cried buckets and it's stayed with me for many years, something that I don’t think this one will.

Next book is Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriaty.