306 pages, Kindle Edition
Review by Pat Black
Simon’s Choice is not a romance. It is a tough piece of work, and I mean that as a compliment. It is sometimes bleak, but always honest. The subject matter is not easy or comfortable, nor is it meant to be. As such, it’s hard to review – there’s little room for irony, no space to play in.
I have to remind myself that it is a work of fiction. I keep wanting to refer to it as true life, memoir or misery lit, whatever you want to call it. To get the theme out of the way, this book looks at the sickness and death of a seven-year-old girl, Sarah. She has leukaemia, and despite fighting the disease off once, it makes its way back into her system.
Her parents are Simon and Melissa. Simon is a doctor, while Melissa is a successful small businesswoman. When their only child is struck down by cancer, their cosy middle class life begins to dissolve. Simon withdraws into himself, ignoring the inevitability of what is about to happen, this perversion of natural order. Melissa is more realistic about things, but seems angrier as a result.
As the disease progresses and they are given the terrible news that their daughter has just months to live, all the comfortable middle class accoutrements – the nice cars, the fancy holidays, the gadgets and the expensive wines, the cosy dinners and get-togethers with both sets of grandparents – are brutally superseded. A long-cherished trip to EuroDisney for the sick child seems to nail this notion down – when you’re dealing with the death of a child, everything’s fake, and nothing else matters.
Understandably, the relationship between Simon and Melissa begins to disintegrate. Simon starts doing in a bottle of wine a night; when he runs out of that, he starts on the scotch. He starts waking up in the spare room, even when he’s playing his vinyl records too loudly, and kicking off every day with a hangover. Melissa deals with things a little better, but she has a turn to her. She enjoys provoking her husband, with that godawful reasoning we see in some individuals who would prefer any sort of emotional reaction – whether that’s a screaming match, sobbing, or a punch in the mouth – to that unbearable thing, silence.
Simon has faith, though, being a regular at their local Church of England. Although alcohol seems to be his main crutch during his ordeal, a belief in God props up his spiritual side. “Sarah will go on being loved,” runs his reasoning. “So, Sarah will go on being.”
While he awaits the inevitable, after suffering trips to hospices and any number of cheerful nurses, with his marriage in a similar terminal state, Simon is left to wonder about what choices he has left in life. A drunken promise made to his dying girl one night seems to be the only way out of the misery – that whatever happens, daddy will go with his little girl through to the other side. Can Simon’s family, friends and community pull him out of the rut before it’s too late?
A compelling piece of work, with very strong themes and at times emotionally draining, this is normally the type of book I don’t read. Perhaps this is why it made such an impression on me. Normally, writing – even if it seeks to document the things of real life – is my escape pod, a way of turning my back on the serious stuff, the inevitabilities, dreads and fears. This book pulled me back in, but I was alright with that; nothing feels laboured or clichéd.
Our experiences of death, from the goldfish onwards, are our own, as are our responses to it. For some, this book may be too much to bear at times. But for the rest of us it’s a tough, but worthwhile journey.
Read the author interview here.