Book Review: Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls

ways to liveFirst published on 6th April 6, 2008 in StarMag

By Sally Nicholls
Publisher: Marion Lloyd Books, 200 pages

IT was hard for me to read this book because it’s the story of a little boy who’s dying of leukemia. Not only do I suffer agonies reading anything that describes children suffering, I also happen to have a son who has congenital heart disease. He has already had several operations to correct his heart deffects, and he is on longterm medication, but he’s not an invalid and you wouldn’t guess, to look at him or watch him play, that he has a problem. He was diagnosed at birth and has lived his 11 years knowing that he isn’t like his friends. He is quite matter of fact about it, only ocassionally expressing irritation that he has to remember to pop pills thrice a day and not to exert himself physically. When he was born, his dad and I were told that he wouldn’t survive for more than a month if he wasn’t operated on right away. But even after corrective surgery, Elesh’s chance of survival isn’t certain.

I guess one of the worst things about being the parent of a child who has a serious health problem is knowing that you might well outlive him. Because of how I feel about Elesh, I could totally identify with Sam’s dad who is in denial. For a parent of a sick child, denial could be seen as a form of hope even if it is hope that’s not based on reality or hard facts. It flies in the face of the truth or, rather, it turns its back on the truth. It waits for a miracle or to wake up one morning to find, like Pamela Ewing did in Dallas, that it was all just a bad dream.

Sam, the boy in the book (who is 11 too), has acute lymphoblastic leukemia and he knows that he is dying. Of course, we’re all dying. The question is when? Sam has a rough idea. Is that better or worse than not knowing exactly when the grim reaper will come calling?

Sam and his friend Felix (also ill) are homeschooled and one day, their teacher, Mrs Felix, suggests they write about themselves. This is when Sam starts writing his book. Ways to Live Forever is Sam’s story, comprising “lists, stories, pictures, questions and facts” – Sam lives forever in his words.

Like most boys he loves facts. He likes “knowing things” and he dislikes the way grown-ups sidestep questions. Sam plans to find out the answers to “Questions nobody answers”, questions like “How do you know that you’ve died?”, “Why does God make kids get ill?” and “Where do you go after you die?” Questions that have stumped the best minds on the planet.

Sam (ocassionally with Felix’s help) tries to come up with answers to these posers. Whether the conclusions he arrives at are right, wrong or even plausible is not the point.The point is that many of these questions arise from fear, worry and anger and Sam, by addressing them, is acknowledging (perhaps subconsciously) a need come to terms with his impending death (the five stages of grief as described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her research and published in her seminal work On Death and Dying) are experienced not only by those who are faced with the death of a loved one, but also by the dying themselves).

Although it’s about death and dying, this isn’t a depressing book, not when Sally Nicholls is so convincingly a silly and irreverent 11-year-old with big dreams. Some of the things on his list of stuff he wants to do (before he dies) made me really sad. They’re things most adults and almost certainly all healthy teenage boys take for granted – things like have girlfriends and watch horror films. But he does get to do every thing on the list, in one way or other. Sometimes he cheats (encouraged by Felix who also comes up with one or two hare-brained, but inspired schemes), sometimes it’s the feelings produced that are important, not the actions themselves. When Sam does get to really and truly do exactly what he wants, it’s out of this world. You’ll want to grin and cheer and that’s, again, thanks to Nicholls’ success at creating such a real, ordinary yet extraordinary human being whom you can’t help but feel for and bond with.

sally nicholls
Sally Nicholls

Should you arm yourself with a large box of tissues as you come to the end of the last chapter? Well … that depends. Me … well, of course I thought of Elesh and bawled my eyes out. However, there’s really nothing sentimental about the way Nicholls portrays Sam’s last moments. In fact, as this is Sam’s story (Sam’s book), you don’t get to read about his actual death. Sam’s final entry describes an experience that happens just two days before the day he dies though and it’s a quiet, rather dreamy, very loving and warm scene, with Sam surrounded by his family. I’m glad Sam (fictional or not) got to experience it. I hope dying children every where are as lucky.

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