I’d heard about this book a few months ago – I think through WordPress actually – and it seemed like such an interesting book. It was only until a few weeks ago that I actually thought about purchasing it, after I received an amazon voucher for my Birthday and was scrolling through things I could buy. And I’m so glad I did because I feel like this is something that everybody should read! (and I apologise for the long review but I just have so much to say about it)
‘When Breath Becomes Air’, to put it simply, is an account of the life of a surgeon who has lung cancer, and it’s very much a true story. However, I’m sure this review will be full of understatements because it’s physically impossible to put into words how awful it must have been to be in that position. This book is the closest way you can get to understanding it I’m sure, without actually experiencing it for yourself.
On first glance, the novel is full of scientific jargon that honestly makes no sense to me and I can see how this might put people off, but it’s so much more than just the life of a surgeon and their everyday duties. The concept of reversing roles from a surgeon to a patient is in itself interesting – I think this is perhaps what makes it so hard for Kalanithi most of all. He’s always had this desire to help others and yet when he needs help himself, he has no control over his own destiny. After being the surgeon in control of life, he then realises that ultimately death is the only one playing the game.
What I loved most about this book was that it wasn’t all about science (because let’s be honest, I’m really not a massive fan of science); instead, there were a lot of philosophical ideas and a lot of talk on literature, as well as specific quotes. It was nice to see how Kalanithi worked within the field of science and yet he was still driven by all these books and knowledge outside of it too. There’s no limitation to his interests like there’s no limitation to knowledge and I felt myself admiring the way he helped people as a surgeon in the form of treating the dying but also, eventually, through the words of his novel itself. It’s two completely different ways of contributing to the world and yet I feel like they both made their mark.
The main theme of the novel seems to be a journey into finding out what makes life meaningful and this is perhaps pretty typical of a novel about cancer, however Kalanithi definitely approaches it in an original manner. I’d never really thought properly what it must be like to be a surgeon – I guess because it’s never really been my career interest – but reading this book made me understand how difficult it must be to be around struggling patients, people who you see at their most vulnerable even though they are in fact strangers to you. One paragraph that really stood out to me was this one:
‘At moments, the weight of it all became palpable. It was in the air, the stress and misery. Normally, you breathed it in, without noticing it. But some days, like a humid muggy day, it had a suffocating weight of its own. Some days, this is how it felt when I was in the hospital trapped in an endless jungle summer, wet with sweat, the rain of tears of the families of the dying pouring down.’ (p78)
The fact that this weight is the weight he felt when he was merely a surgeon, doesn’t even begin to explain the weight he must have felt when he became the patient. And I guess it’s one of those moments that’s unexplainable unless you, too, work around the pedestal of life vs death and face its conflicts every day. But it must feel great to not have to question your work in this way – you know you’re directly making a difference to the world and that’s got to be worth something.
One aspect that Kalanithi struggles with in the novel is the sense of unknown time – not knowing how long you have left and therefore what you should do with this time – and I imagine this must be one of the toughest parts of all. How are you meant to live your days if you don’t know how many you have? Is there a right or wrong way to do this? However I think Kalanithi made the right choices – if there is a right way to do anything. It’s heart-breaking to know that he’d been striving for complete medical success and that cancer prevented this, but I feel like this only made him more successful in his writing career and as a well-rounded person. As his wife says in the epilogue, ‘this book is a new way for him to help others, a contribution only he could make’ (p224) and I completely agree with this. No one else could have helped others in the way Kalanithi has with this book because he’s an individual person in this unique situation and it would have been crazy to bypass this opportunity when he is such a great writer.
On reaching the end of the book, particularly on reading the epilogue, it suddenly hit me that I was completely aware of the ending; here it was actually happening and yet nothing could have prepared me for it, nothing at all. And I guess, in a way, that’s what it must be like to have cancer or to know someone with it; there’s no way to prepare for the inevitable and that’s what makes it so destructive. But I don’t think anyone could have made such a life-destroying disease into such a thoughtful piece of art as this novel did. It’s genuinely hard to put into words because I came out of it crying and yet I feel like I’ve learnt so much. I just love everything about it – from the way it was written to the way it just affects you and completely consumes you. Kalanithi’s daughter may not remember him when she grows up, but this book is certainly the greatest way she can come to know him.