dis·com·bob·u·late [dis-kuhm-bob-yuh-leyt]. verb: to confuse or disconcert; upset; frustrate
Yesterday morning I finished reading ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green. “Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw” shouts the back cover in bold, narrow, handwritten type. If I take the “disconcert” and “upset” parts of the definition above, this book most certainly discombobulated me.
Sundays are my ‘morning off’, which usually means I snooze for a while before sneaking in some reading. Not so yesterday. As soon as Mr H had reluctantly succumbed to Littlest H’s insistent and boisterous ‘I’m HUNGRY, Daddy’, on went the light and out came the book. I’ve been tired all week from staying up late to read it, and yesterday I wasn’t leaving my bed until I was finished.
At which point I gathered myself, wiped away the tears and re-engaged with family life. But I was unexplainably snippy with Mr H, and then, while on my bike, straining up a hill in open countryside (usually a positive experience of ‘yay I’m exercising’ and ‘yay, I’m on my own’), I found myself full-on bawling for no obvious reason. Yes, I was exhausted from the effort of more uphills than I anticipated; yes I was frustrated with my recklessness in planning a route I didn’t know when I had a finite amount of time to get back to pick up Littlest H from a birthday party; but neither of those would usually be reason enough for such an uncontrollable emotional outburst, even for me. So I can only conclude I was letting out the emotion this book created in me.
Why did this book affect me so much? Its subject matter was never going to be light and fluffy – it’s about children with cancer. But I don’t think the awfulness of childhood cancer was what got me. It was the real-ness of the characters and their emotions, the breathtakingly intelligent banter of the teenage protagonists, so beautifully observed and written, and the power of the writing to put me right there in the lives of the families and the truly awful situation they were in.
I want to read it again, to take it more slowly, to savour the bits I didn’t stop to fully take in. There are no wasted words in this book. I remember reading Thomas Hardy at school, skipping the first one to two pages of every chapter with their lengthy, flowery descriptions of place and time. None of that here. I am in awe of John Green and his skill.
No, this is not light and fluffy. Yes, I cried tears of anguish more than once. But mostly, I found it incredibly uplifting – how these teenagers and their families function in a terrible and terrifying situation. How they find a path to life, rather than giving up on it or focusing on death, however close it may be.
To me, books or any other art form, work if they make me feel. This book made me feel on every page. I feel the privilege of life, the privilege and preciousness of healthy children, family and friends, and the temporary nature of that privilege. I feel the truth of how humour, ‘real-ness’ and a lack of melodrama or sentimentality could help make cancer or other disease more bearable. I have a new perspective on how my and others’ behaviour could look or feel to people suffering with cancer or other disease. That point struck me in particular reading how some family members acted around someone dying – remembering them to their face while still alive, using the past tense, being sentimental. It is beautifully handled in the book. I have a tendency to melodrama and sentimentality, and I hope I managed to avoid making my father’s two years with cancer more difficult by acting as these people do, however understandable the reaction is. Even if I did, I can’t change it now, but perhaps I can handle it differently if, god forbid, I’m in the situation again.
I completely agree with the proclamation on the back cover of this book. It is insightful, bold, irreverent and, more than anything, raw. The irreverence is its brilliance in my view. I’m sure it wouldn’t work for everyone going through cancer, nor do all the main characters manage it in this book, but it is a real, unsentimental coping mechanism that I can relate to.
In Western society we are increasingly used to the expectation of long life. Our politicians and finance gurus discuss the problem of pensioners living longer. More and more diseases are eradicated or managed with sophisticated drugs. The vast majority of us are used to clean water, sanitation, heat, excellent medical care, jobs that won’t lead us to early death, limited immediate threat of war. Long gone are the days of high infant mortality and fifty being a ripe old age.
Watching historical drama or current documentaries about Africa or other areas of the world where life is less certain, I wonder at that sense of living with death. Parents of the past expected some of their children to die – I’m certain it was still hugely traumatic, but perhaps one felt helplessness and inevitability about it compared to the shocking, terrifying, gut-wrenching feelings towards it today. We believe it will never be us. We expect to live until we’re old, crinkly and bad-tempered, necking gin at 10am and pushing to the front of the queue because we can.
I do think cancer is changing that perception in current generations though. More and more of us experience it ourselves or in our close family and friends, and it makes long life feel less certain. Many cancers are survivable, yes, but it is a disease we fear because it strikes hard and indiscriminately – there is little we can do in our lifestyles to manage our risk of getting it, or indeed, to not be the wrong side of the survivor statistics. How the teenagers and families in this book handle that process in the extreme, is a lesson for me and no doubt any other readers.
If you read one book this year, read this one.