Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 256
Genres: Non-fiction, Memoir

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.
After reading this book, my first impulse was to immediately grant it five stars and after letting it sit for a while I decided to remove a star as I did not enjoy the first half as much as the second half or epilogue. I was not expecting Paul Kalanthi to explain his background and education for the first half of the book, he certainly had a privileged life few of us could dream of and although it gave crucial insight into his personality and his motivators in life, I was desperate to get into the meat of the book. What is it like to know you are going to die young? How and when does one make peace with that knowledge?

I found Paul's lifelong search for the answers to classic philosophical questions relatable. What makes a life well lived? What is death? I found Paul's musings insightful and interesting, and I especially appreciated his obvious love for literature. It is truly sad that he didn't get to finish the book before his condition deteriorated to the point where he simply couldn't continue to write. The passages where he describes his joy at the birth of his daughter whilst he was ill were truly moving. What a cute baby, it's truly tragic she wasn't old enough to be able to recall even a simple memory of him.

Paul's decline and eventual death was written in the epilogue by his wife, Lucy, who was a fellow medical professional. Lucy's writing was so raw and really gave an inside look at what it was like to witness her husband dying that really touched a nerve. I held it together until that part whereupon the tears just flowed. A good book that packs a profound emotional punch.

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