Book Review: The Last Leaves Falling

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‘look close and you see the hidden buds of spring’

The Last Leaves Falling, by Sarah Benwell, is not a comfortable book to read dealing as it does with the imminent death of a teenager. It takes us into a world coloured by exam stress; parental expectation; the excitement and pressure of future unknowns that, for the protagonist, have been stolen away. This is not another ‘Fault in our Stars’. It is a darker and harsher tale.

Sora is seventeen years old and has rapidly progressing ALS (motor neuron disease). He lives in Kyoto, Japan with his mother and feels a burden of guilt for her grief over his condition. Sora has been forced to leave his school which could not offer the access and support he would require as his body deteriorates. Discomfited by onlookers pity he chooses to spend much of his time alone in his room. From here he reaches out through internet chatrooms to teenagers who did not know him before, finding friends who will see beyond his condition but not shy away from what is to come as the adults in his life are wont to do.

The writing interweaves narrative with on line screenshots and chat threads. These work well at showing the importance of the internet in modern, teenage life. As Sora’s new friends agonise over schoolwork and university applications he must cope with his degenerating body. He obsesses over how it will feel to die and if there is a hereafter, frustrated by his doctor’s and mother’s refusal to discuss his concerns.

The story is undoubtedly bleak but there are chinks of light which are uplifting. The friends learn to appreciate how precious life is and that it should not be wasted. They allow themselves to dream.

The attitudes portrayed reflect Japanese culture but there are wider truths to consider. Throughout the world adults aim to guide and protect young people who may then struggle to find a way to have their voices heard. Sora turns to his friends when his mother’s love becomes a burden, finding relief when they listen and accept.

A powerful tale that is very well written. It is moving and challenging, exploring difficult issues with painful honesty. People die, then for those left life goes on. What matters is to use the time we have to create memories, to be open to new ideas, to live.

 

 

Author Interview: Sarah Benwell

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Sarah Benwell writes fiction for young adults. She has a particular fondness for travel and foreign places, both in real life and in her stories. Alongside her writing, Sarah delivers literacy workshops for teenagers and works on various social media and online websites.

She is an advocate of diversity, in life and on bookshelves. Her involvement with Diversity League has recently gained prominence through the amazingly successful #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign.

I first became aware of Sarah’s work when her name started to crop up amongst the outer circle of my daughter’s writer friends; there is nothing like a personal contact, even if a few times removed, to generate interest. Having investigated the work that she and others are doing to raise awareness of the current lack of diversity in popular fiction for young people, I knew that I wanted to know more.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Sarah Benwell.

Where do you typically write?

The short answer is, ‘anywhere I can’. The long answer: I’d prefer to write on trains and planes, deep in the jungle or lakeside in The Serengeti. And I sort of do – I always have a notebook with me – but I also find it really hard to write for any length by hand, so the majority of it gets done at my desk, surrounded by my wall of post-it notes.

Tell us about your writing process.

Hm. I think this is always an evolving thing. I recently realized that, despite always maintaining that I only have the brainspace to work on one project at once, I currently have seven on the go (what? I don’t even know how that happened!). And before the latest WIP I would have sworn that the hardest part was always the first 8k, but this time the hard part kept on going.

I can tell you that for me, situation and character appear almost simultaneously. It’s like ‘how would I/ someone deal with this weird/ awful/wonderful thing?’ and invariably a character who would find themselves in that situation– usually someone from an entirely different kind of life to my own – walks into my head.

And I can tell you that diversity is always at the heart of what I do. I’m fascinated by the perpetual difference:sameness of us all, and all the facets of that. My world isn’t populated by white, middle class, straight. cisgendered, able-bodied, neuro-typical protestants who all live in the west, in nuclear families, with identical problems. But it doesn’t mean we can’t relate. Life isn’t just one story, and I don’t want my books to be, either.

And because I’m usually writing (at least in part) as an outsider, I try to be careful and respectful; to do everything I can to ensure fair, accurate representation. Research is important. Experience or firsthand accounts, insider knowledge and opinions are essential. Seeking out art (in all its forms) and observing the way language works and always, always asking questions (and listening to the answers). We’re lucky. The internet opens all those doors; we just have to seek them out.

Tell us about your publishing experience.

If you want the full and lengthy story, you can read more about the journey to my first book deal here. Since that deal, I’ve been very, very lucky to work with the wonderful Becky Stradwick at RHCP UK, and with the brilliant David Gale at S&S US. They have very different approaches, and I’ve benefited hugely from that. Plus, it’s kind of nice to know that the ‘no one way’ rule applies everywhere, not just to writers. Diversity FTW.

In what ways do you promote your work?

I don’t, as such. I mean, it would be lovely if people seek out my writing (it’s not out yet, or I might slip a shameless plug in here) but I’m not entirely comfortable yet with the idea of self promotion as an active, deliberate thing.

What I do, though, is interact. Not for sales and gaining interest, but because I love this world that we live in. I love being part of the writing community (IRL and online), whether that means running workshops that enable teens to engage with their creative selves, beta-ing for Twitter friends or just being there.

I’m also, er, not good at keeping quiet about the things which are important to me. If there’s a book I love, you’re going to hear about it (and so will the author, probably). I talk about articles I’ve read, and am always on the lookout for discussions, especially where YA/ publishing/diversity are concerned. I want to be well informed. I want the tools to make a difference. And I want my friends to be too, because no one can do that alone.

It’s not about my work. It’s about ours, and the collective difference we can make to the world.

What are some of your current projects?

I can’t talk about everything. You’d be bored in 5 minutes. But my current WIP moves away from the stillness of Last Leaves, and into the land of Bollywood. It’s mad. Mumbai is a pretty crazy place, and the film industry is even more so. I’m playing with form, and colour and busy rhythms, and blurring the lines between reality and fiction just a little; it’s basically a Bollywood movie, except on the page!

On top of that, I’m collaborating with some wonderful people on things I hope I can share soon, and I have a couple of secret things lined up.

And there’s always my non-writing projects; things like the Young Writers Squad, where I get to work with enthusiastic teens and initiate them into this wonderful, crazy book-world that we live in. Best. Thing. Ever.

Where can my readers find you?

There will be a website, coming soon, but it’s not finished yet.

In the meantime, I’m pretty much always lurking on Twitter, either as Sarah Benwell (@SWritesBooks) or DiversifYA (@DiversifYA).

The Last Leaves Falling is now on Goodreads.

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Sarah Benwell is a YA author, teacher, traveller, mad.

Will always rise to a challenge, even when it involves giant hairy spiders. For lunch.

Lives in Bath, England but prefers living in books or on planes or trains or remote unmapped places.

Advocate of diversity in life and bookcases.

Rep’d by Gill McLay. The Last Leaves Falling is her debut novel, coming spring 2015 from Random House UK.