Book Review: Absolutely Delicious

“no thing
Which is, can ever perish totally,
Since Nature makes one thing out of another”

Absolutely Delicious: A Chronicle of Extraordinary Dying, by Alison Jean Lester (illustrated by Mary Ann Frye), is an account of how the author’s mother, father and maiden aunt each approached their deaths. It is framed around the mother, Valerie Browne Lester, who, on learning that her cancer was likely terminal, opted to eschew further treatment. Instead, she retired to a residential hospice where she took control of the time she had left.

Written with love and generosity, there is no glossing over the more gross aspects of an old and failing body as it approaches its end. Nevertheless, this is a book that offers hope for what all will inevitably face – that it need not be a time of fear and upset.

The book opens with a preface that explains why the author chose to write about her mother’s dying. She then introduces the reader to Valerie, offering a potted biography of events that helped shape her. Valerie was also a writer, with a number of published works. Included within this volume are poems – some written by Valerie and others that influenced her. These help shed light on her emotions and spirited approach to life.

Born and schooled in England, Valerie also spent childhood years in Jamaica. When she married James Lester they settled in America. Here their two children, Toby and Alison, were born and raised.

Valerie’s father died of Parkinson’s disease and her mother of Alzheimer’s disease – drawn out endings in England that must have impacted their only child. She told family and friends that she did not wish to live beyond eighty. She got her wish.

After forty-six years of marriage, Valerie supported her husband, who had ALS, enabling him to die in the manner of his choosing. Alison and Toby were also there at their father’s end. Both he and his wife discussed with their children what they wanted and why – conversations that helped those remaining to come to terms with their loved one’s death.

During the last years of her parents’ lives, Alison was living abroad with her husband, raising their children until they left to follow their own paths. Alison’s brother lived with his wife and daughters an hour or so’s drive from their parents. Whatever the distance and other family commitments, the siblings travelled regularly to provide support as needed. There were also many close friends offering assistance – emotional and practical.

What comes across clearly in this narrative is how lucky the elderly relatives were to have friends and family able and willing to help out over the course of the protracted period it takes for a human body to finally fail. It is so different to how many other families end up functioning in such circumstances. Care was provided by health professionals but it was the family who came together to ensure the dying’s wishes were upheld – including that there should be no long faces when outcome had been understood and accepted. Valerie wished to celebrate the life she had experienced, and then be celebrated.

Although both James and Valerie accepted their prognoses and took control of their deaths, James’ sister, Jane, raged against the prospect of her end. Unmarried and with no children of her own, Jane also benefited from her niece’s willingness to do what she could to support and help as Jane’s ageing body suffered trauma and illness. The comparison in attitude serves as a reminder that not everyone will accept the inevitable with equanimity. This too must be accepted.

The writing in this book is both emotional and factual – thought-provoking and warmly engaging. It is structured to be succinct yet provides detail many appear reluctant to voice let alone face. There are sections that raise an element of revulsion – such as when control is lost over basic bodily functions – although Alison dealt with these with grace. She did have certain regrets, listed in a final chapter. It is also pointed out that the prospect of the imminent death of a parent enabled her to put aside differences that had previously resulted in conflict or hurt.

“Mum was returning to her factory settings, letting go of her sharp edges, her harsh judgements, the burden of ‘taste’. She told me once that cutting my toast into triangles rather than rectangles was low class. Now toast was just a good thing, however it came.”

Included within the details of dying are reminders that the elderly are still functioning human beings. Valerie had dalliances after she was widowed, sharing details that her daughter did not welcome. When sorting through her mother’s belongings, staying in her assisted living facility, Alison gained a fresh appreciation of how older people can still bask in new connections and approbation.

I am of an age when I and many of my peers have experienced the slow dying of elderly parents. This account serves as a lesson in the importance of discussing openly and clearly how people wish to be treated as their end nears. It is also an uplifting story, demonstrating it is possible for family and friends to support each other without resentment. I wonder if Alison realises quite how amazing – how unusual – many would find this.

Much is decided by others who think they know best for both children and the elderly – creating lasting repercussions for all involved. With death the final act for all who live, setting out one’s wishes in advance makes good sense. As Alison points out, it also removes a burden from those who must make affecting decisions at such a difficult time, and then live with the impact.

This is a tale that spills over with love, relish and appreciation. A recommended read for all who must deal with the dying. A reminder to live until death.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author. 

Book Review: Yuki Means Happiness

This review was written for and first published by Structo Magazine.

Having enjoyed Alison Jean Lester’s debut, Lillian on Life, I was eager to see where the author would take her readers in this, her second novel. Lillian was a woman of a certain age looking back over decades lived. This latest work is again told as a recollection, this time of a much younger woman looking back to a pivotal few months when she was in her early twenties. From the first sentence of Yuki Means Happiness the reader is aware that the adventure will not end well.

The story opens in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1996. Diana, a trained nurse, is meeting Naoki Yoshimura, the father of two year Yuki. Naoki had employed Diana as a maternity nurse when his wife, Emi, travelled to Boston to give birth. Now he informs her that Emi has left him. He offers Diana a generous salary to work in Tokyo as Yuki’s nanny. Diana is in a relationship but unsure of the commitment she is willing to offer. She regards this job as a chance for adventure and also escape. Key events in her life to date have made her wary of men and their intentions. Her boyfriend is ignorant of this personal history and declares his willingness to wait.

Diana travels to Tokyo unable to speak any Japanese. Naoki’s home is next door to that of his wealthy parents – it was built in their garden. Naoki’s mother is polite but distant. She helps with Yuki when requested and keeps a watchful eye on her son’s interests.

The sense of place evoked as Diana settles into her new role is beautifully rendered. As a young and inexperienced woman Diana finds herself irritated but compliant with the demands made on her time by her employer. She grows to adore Yuki and relishes the insights she is gaining into the culture and expectations of the Japanese.

Life within the Yoshimura household begins to shift when Naoki brings home a new girlfriend. Meanwhile, Diana has started meeting up with Naoki’s ex-wife, discovering that their marital breakup was not everything Diana had been led to believe. When she is accused of leaving Yuki in the care of a man, Naoki displays an anger that frightens the young nanny. His subsequent actions suggest Yuki could also be in danger.

The unfolding tale is nuanced and layered, presented with a subtlety that belies its depth. The emotional threads of the novel may be complex, but the writing remains accessible and engaging. Japan is portrayed with warmth and honesty, while its customs, however alluring, are shown to provide a means to exert dominance.

The understated intricacy of the story development is impressive, and the setting, plot and structure are deftly painted. There is much to reflect on after turning the final page.

Yuki Means Happiness / Alison Jean Lester / John Murray / 27 July 2017

Jackie Law runs the book blog Never Imitate and is a regular contributor to Bookmunch. She lives in rural Wiltshire with her family and back garden hens. You can find her on Twitter @followthehens.

Book Review: Lillian on Life

20707_10200244733677077_1868777546249814221_n

Lillian on Life, by Alison Jean Lester, offers an insight into the life of a woman of a certain age. Reading it I felt as though I were sitting down with a newly introduced acquaintance who, as the conversation progressed, proved to be intelligent, articulate, perceptive and to have lived a fascinating if somewhat exotic life. It is not, however, the life that the protagonist has lived but rather the observations on her experiences and the people she encountered which make this book so satisfying to read.

Lillian was born in Columbia, Missouri in 1933. Her detailed recollections begin from when she was around fifteen years old. She idolised her father but had a more troubled relationship with her mother who always seemed to be trying to alter her daughter to better suit an image that she herself would prefer. An older brother had moved away from the family home when Lillian was twelve. As she recalled her mother’s often dismissive reactions to Lillian’s early achievements it was noted that:

‘There’s nothing as perfect as a talented firstborn son who has gone away.’

Lillian had always imagined that she would grow up, get married and have children. Throughout her life she was never short of boyfriends and then lovers, some of whom were married and some of whom she loved. Events conspired to enable travel and she lived in several European cities before settling in New York. In considering the way her life turned out she opined:

‘So many people say that everything happens for a reason. I’ve always felt that things happen because the things before them happen, that’s all.’

As Lillian recounts her experiences and shares her thoughts it becomes clear that she is not attempting to impress. If anything there is a sadness behind many of the tales, a recognition that had she known how things would turn out she may have acted differently, although she does not dwell upon regrets. Her stories allow the reader to see her life through her eyes with a clarity and understanding that can rarely be articulated so perceptively and succinctly.

The narrative evokes a depth of feeling, a sense of poignancy, alongside the descriptions of events. As she remembers the men she has been involved with and their treatment of her she recognises that sometimes it was easier to accept their patronising ways and then to move on:

‘I was too polite to put up a fight. When you protest too much they give you a look that’s even more condescending than their platitudes.’

Lillian cared about how she looked, about her hair and her dress. She could not understand how some women did not. Lillian enjoyed sex, but also wished to please her sexual partners so would submit to their desires, placing herself outside of her physical body as a way of coping with their invasions. She was scathing of wives who became disinterested in providing such selfless pleasures for their men.

In so many ways the bare facts of Lillian’s way of living would be the antithesis of a women I could admire, and yet in reading this book I grew to like her a great deal. I would love to be able to sit down with her, share a bottle of wine and enjoy more of the intelligent conversation which this book provides. It is a work of fiction yet the quality and easy flow of the writing made her seem real.

Quite unlike other books in its style and scope, I will be recommending Lillian to many other women of my acquaintance. Her passion, achievements and self effacing observations have the potential to entertain and inspire us all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, John Murray.