Friday, April 25, 2008

Books about Dying

I've just read two books in a row in which a major character (or the main character) dies. And in one of them, the viewpoint is first person. Obviously in that story, the death is on the last page. I didn't mean to read these together, but that's the order they were in on my book pile. First up was Miss McAllister's Ghost by Elizabeth Fensham, who managed to win a CBCA award with her first book, Helicopter Man. First thing I have to say is the title doesn't do the book justice. Apart from anything else, I kept expecting a ghost story, which it isn't.

The three kids in the story meet a very old woman, Miss McAllister, when the youngest, Wilf, sees her at the window of an old house and thinks she is a ghost. But she is very real, if very old, and during the course of the story, turns around the lives of the three. Their parents are not only busy working, but Dad is prone to thumping them all or throwing things, and is not someone you'd go to for advice or help. I'm not going to tell you who dies, but it's another reason I don't like the title because I think it gives the ending away. It's a quiet story about people thrown together in an unlikely way, and has humour and surprises to keep you reading.

The second book was Before I Die by Jenny Downham, the story of a seventeen-year-old girl dying of leukemia, so you know the ending before you start. I was wary of this book, even though I'd heard good things about it. Being in first person meant it was going to tread that fine line of melodrama and sobbiness - however, the voice of the narrator is tough and angry, and her situation leads her into all kinds of risky behaviours as she attempts to complete her list of ten things to do before she dies.

It's a very real story, and made me cry simply because it wasn't sentimental at all. The scenes at the end are written so well that I wondered if the author had been very close to someone who died like this (it was a stark reminder for me of when my sister died). When I Googled for information, I discovered that Downham has not had this experience but is an actor and is good at working her way into a character. She kept a diary for two years as Tessa, the narrator, and the amount of time she spent working on this book shows in the depth of characterisation for all of the characters, especially Tessa's father.

I think writing about death is, in some ways, like writing about sex. The more simple and clear and direct you are about what your characters feel and think and do and say, the more you evoke the "real-ness" of it. It all comes back, yet again, to your use of language, your choice of words, your ability to be in your narrator's or character's head. In a world where we see people die, either for real or in fiction, dozens of times in a day (more if you watch an Arnie movie!), the fact that we have writers who can make one death in a story meaningful is a wonderful thing.

1 comment:

Kristi Holl said...

Writing about death IS a tricky subject. I've only done it once, and kids often said it was their favorite book of mine. I was really surprised. I always try to keep the tears to a minimum though. Boo-hooing characters don't get my sympathy like characters who feel like crying but keep a stiff (if quivering) upper lip. I like that one author's idea of writing a diary as the main character in order to get to know her over time.