What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

Someone has said, When you are born into this world there are at least two of you, but going out you are on your own. Death happens to every one of us, yet it remains the most solitary of human experiences, one that separates rather than unites us.

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez is a story about assisted dying. It’s a complex topic and frankly, not one that I am going to explore on this blog. However, I was attracted to this book because of the topic – I want to read about it, I want to think about it, but I don’t want to ‘review’ it. And there’s lots to say about aspects of this book other than assisted dying.

The story centers around a woman whose friend has terminal cancer. Her friend makes a request – that she wishes to end her life on her own terms, but needs help.

As her friend’s illness progresses, the woman describes other encounters she has, significantly with an ex who lectures on climate catastrophe and the end of civilisation, and with the son of an elderly neighbour. These encounters give different perspectives on end-of-life.

Two aspects of this books stood out for me. The first was the ‘unfinished business’ of the woman’s friend. We frequently talk about ‘bucket lists’ and ‘regrets’ (asking someone facing death about regrets is a short-cut to understanding what they truly value). In the story, the friend has a strained relationship with her adult daughter, and their discussions about the daughter play against the woman’s own childlessness; her ex’s belief that having children is a selfish act; and the elderly neighbour, a ‘burden’ for the son.

You want to forgive all, my friend said, and you should forgive all. But you discover that some things you can’t forgive, not even when you know you’re dying. And then that becomes its own open wound, she said: the inability to forgive.

Secondly, for a book about dying, there’s little about grief (anticipatory or otherwise).

I’m sorry, he said. Is there anything I can do? Said it reflexively, as people always do, this formula that nobody really wants to hear, that comforts nobody. But it was not his fault that our language has been hollowed out, coarsened, and bled dry, leaving us always stupid and tongue-tied before emotion.

I’m in two minds about this book. There was something cool and distant about the writing style. Or was it the narrator, holding the reader at arm’s length? I was never engrossed, but I was interested, and I wondered if the distance I felt was actually Nunez’s skill at work – the push and pull between death being a solitary experience and needing an audience; our own sense of lacking when we witness others face death…

What Are Going Through could have easily veered to the bleak. It doesn’t. There’s humour, of the wry variety, and clear-mindedness –

False hope, she said. I should never have given in to false hope. I can never forgive myself for that, she said. Pause. Never: as if that could still mean a long time.

And the end was a brilliant reflection of life – unpredictable, unorganised but somehow, fitting.

3.5/5 I’ll be thinking this one over…

Our drive had been delayed by several heavy downpours, but, cheeringly enough, the sun broke through at the very instant the house came into view. On the way, we’d eaten the avocado and tomato sandwiches I’d prepared that morning.

10 responses

  1. I have this waiting for me to pick it up at the library. I was slightly in two minds whether to do so, but am encouraged by your post and will definitely give it a go.

  2. A thoughtful review of a book that sounds like many readers might be wary of, knowing it’s not just about a story but what we bring to a reading. I can imagine not everyone will wish to or be ready to luck this up.

    Interesting that opening quote, which is also a matter of perspective. I read a book while deep in the strange otherworldly stage of grief for my daughter called Angelic Attendants, and what I learned there resulted in me rewriting my own personal narrative on who is with us when we part. Certainly I don’t believe we/they are alone. 🙏🏼

  3. I really enjoyed this one when I read it last year. I saw it less about dying and more about stories… the stories we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves. And I loved the observational style that Nunez uses. Her writing reminds me a lot of Helen Garner’s which is probably why I like her novels so much.

  4. Tough topic. We all have a fear that we might want not to live an endlessly long death and I’ve read similar books, so I might give this one a miss.

  5. Sigrid Nunez has become one of my favourite authors in recent years. I don’t know if it’s available in Aus, but I really enjoyed engaging with The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart earlier this year. Really fascinating case studies of people who choose assisted dying and why. Not uncritical, either.

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