Monday, 4 August 2008

'Before I say Goodbye' and 'If the Spirit Moves You'

Anyone who has read this blog for longer than a week will know that I adore Daphne by Justine Picardie. I promised to write about her other work, but have put off doing so because I didn't feel that I was up to the task. I've seen so many other bloggers write eloquently that to even attempt to write something seemed likely to be a paltry attempt. I felt I wouldn't be able to do the books justice and I'd just end up writing something trite, which isn't what they deserves at all.

I hope I've overcome those fears now - what I write may not be perfect, but it will be what I feel, which I suppose is the most one can ask for when book blogging.

After reading Daphne, I really wanted to read other things Justine had written, and got If The Spirit Moves You out of the library, and then was lucky enough to find both it and Before I say Goodbye in a secondhand shop.

I decided to read Ruth's account of her fatal illness first, and found I was completely unprepared for the humour I found within her emails. I don't know what I had expected, but a dying woman making jokes certainly wasn't anywhere close. There she is, plotting with a friend who has HIV/Aids, just precisely what the blurb for their posthumously published correspondence should say 'In 1997, two young people [I'm going to be 29 in my obits] went into hiding in South London when their bodies were occupied by invading Bad Cells. This is their moving diary ... Blah blah blah.'
Of course there is a great deal of pain too, both physically and mentally, and it's not just Ruth's pain that shows through the few emails that cover the final ten months of her life - there are numerous emails from friends and family who ask for news, but are always aware of the need to be cheerful, in case the news is too hard to tell. The anger is palpable too.
Into this flurry of emails are placed the five columns that Ruth wrote for the Observer, and the inevitable letters that followed on from these. People whose hearts she had touched who ached to let her know that she wasn't alone.
Strangely, this is where the book caught me, making me put it down for an hour or two, until I was strong enough to go back to it. It's not until you get to the very end of Ruth's journey that it suddenly impresses on you how quickly everything is happening - yet she still has the strength to tell her friends that the end is near. Such courage surely is not in all of us.

Justine wrote the final column in the Observer, and towards the end wrote 'Ruth slipped away to a different place, a place where I could not go with her.' This seemed to be the main theme of Justine's book If the Spirit Moves You written almost three years after the death of Ruth. A diary chronicling the search for her sister in the afterlife which takes her right across the Atlantic and back again. This book cut me to the quick - I have two sisters, both to whom I am incredibly close, and can't even begin to imagine the day when I'm without one of them (which will happen sooner than I want, as they are 12 and 15 years older than me) - I can really understand the journey Justine is compelled to go on. What I admire more than anything is her bravery - not simply for going on this journey that may or may not produce what she is looking for, but also at the fact that she found the strength to write it all down.
Ah! I hear you cry 'but she's a journalist!' .... Well, um, yes she is, but I still think you have to be incredibly brave to bare your heart and soul to the world at large in this way; and there is a fragility to parts of this book that belies that strength - although the final statement is strong: 'I like to think that I'm walking towards Ruth, slowly, steadily, as long as it will take. I know that one day I will reach her.'

I've taken too long trying to figure out the exact strength of these two books, and in the end, I don't think I've really touched on what exactly makes these books special to me. For anyone who has felt loss, or pain, they are books that might just help in the time of sorrow. This isn't why they should be read, however. These are simply two books where the power of the written word forces the reader to confront those facts of life that might otherwise be ignored, and may just make the reader stronger in the process.

That's what they did to me.

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