Daily Archives: November 6, 2021

Six degrees of separation: from ‘What are you going through?’ by Sigrid Nunez to….

First Saturday. Six Degrees of Separation Day. This meme, hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest involves Kate choosing a book title, then you linking the details and your reviews of six books which spring to mind. It is a rare month when I have read her starting book and this month is no exception. She chose What are you going through by Sigrid Nunez, which apparently deals with two friends and an assisted death.


Well, I haven’t read this book by Sigrid Nunez but I have read another of hers, which sounds remarkably similar in theme to Kate’s starting book. I then embark on a succession of books about suicide and death, so it’s a gloomy string of titles this time. You may not be in the mood for such unrelieved sadness.

Sigrid Nunez’s earlier book The Friend (2018) is constructed as a series of short paragraphs, addressed to an unnamed male friend who had recently committed suicide. These paragraphs have been written by a similarly unnamed female narrator who teaches creative writing at a university. The paragraphs to her friend are spoken in the second person “you”.

Another suicide is announced in the opening pages of historian Donna Merwick’s Death of a Notary (1999), the story of Janse, the Dutch-speaking notary in Albany, who commits suicide in the late 17th century, a number of years after the English have taken possession of New Amsterdam. The book is written in two halves, the first a conversational present-tense narrative of Janse’s life and death, and the second an extended form of footnotes which I described as “the historian with her hard-hat on”.

Johanna Adorjan’s An Exclusive Love (2010) tells us from the first pages that the author’s grandparents committed suicide together in 1991. The book examines their last day in detail, interspersed with a family history drawn together from the accounts of relatives and her grandparents’ surviving friends.

A Good Day to Die (1998) by Lisa Birnie is about death too, but involves a series of cases and interviews from McCulloch House, a palliative care centre attached to Monash Medical Centre, where Birnie was writer-in-residence. In a way, this does sound a little like Nunez’s What are you going through, but as I haven’t read it, I’m not sure. Written some 20 years before assisted dying legislation was passed in different states in Australia, I wonder how she would feel now.

A young writer, who died too soon is Georgia Blain and her amazing book The Museum of Words (2017). Dying with brain cancer, with a glioblastoma the size of a golf ball, she writes of the experience of her illness, threaded by perverse coincidence with the illnesses of her mentor, friend and human rights activist Rosie Scott, who was dying with exactly the same condition, and her mother who was dying with Alzheimers. This book is in many ways a love letter to all three of these women, to the act of writing, and in her final paragraph, an assertion of gratitude for life itself.

Finally, I feel I need a book with a more uplifting title at least. Dymphna Cusack’s Say No to Death (1951) is set in post-WWII Australia where a young woman, Jan, is diagnosed with tuberculosis, then an incurable disease. This is in the time before Medibank/Medicare, when much of the health spending was being directed towards returned soldiers, and when the discrepancy between private and public health treatment was stark. The book is dated, and is best read as social history, but I must say that it has stayed with me long after I read it.

What a depressing chain. What’s next month’s starting book? Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I just read the Wikipedia summary: it sounds similarly gloomy. I’ll have to work hard to think of more uplifting links.