Summary: After her older brother John’s death from cancer, Sarah finds herself adrift in grief. Constant headaches led Sarah to self-medicate with alcohol and pills, but when her brother begins to haunt her, Sarah steps up her substance abuse. Trying to rid herself of her brother’s ghost, she confides in her friend Donna and tries different rituals from The Book of Living and Dying to help him move on to the afterlife. When it doesn’t work, Sarah finds herself descending into madness, having repetitive dreams that don’t make sense, hearing voices, and fixating on a tarot reading she doesn’t quite understand. A new friendship with a fellow classmate named Michael gives her a place to turn to as things get worse, and his talent with creating videos brings her some comfort.
Number of Pages: 212
Age Range: 15-17
Review: The mark of a skilled story-teller is when they spin a complete tale, only to completely change your perception of it in the last few pages. It leaves the reader with a stunned feeling, wondering what happened, and, if the book is especially amazing, a burning desire to go back and re-read it immediately to try and pick up on missed clues to the book’s true nature.
Natale Ghent’s The Book of Living and Dying is exactly that, a story about a teen girl named Sarah grieving the death of her older brother who is haunting her. Plagued by continuous migraine headaches, Sarah drinks and takes prescription medication that isn’t hers to cope, avoiding the doctor at all costs because of her experiences with her brother’s cancer. Her mother is devastated by the loss of her son John, having already lived through the death of her husband, and isn’t a good support for her daughter in her time of need.
When Michael starts at her school, Sarah is first repulsed by him but quickly finds he is a kindred spirit she is increasingly attracted to. As the haunting grows worse and she begins having intense dreams she doesn’t understand, Sarah finds herself wasting away while trying to cling to the good in her life. Michael becomes a source of comfort and a guiding force in her life.
This is the kind of book that doesn’t really come together until the end, but when it does, it puts the whole story in a new light. It’s difficult to write about it without ruining it, but suffice it to say that Ghent shows her considerable talent in a multi-layered story that reveals its true beauty in the last few pages. I loved it beyond words, because it is brilliantly crafted and also contains great insight into hospital life at its bleakest, and the true nature of terminal illness as Sarah reflects on her time with her brother.
I know that reading it a second time will be a completely different experience due to the nature of the book and I look forward to being able to enjoy Sarah’s story with a new perspective.
“The blue ink spiral he had drawn on her hand winked from her palm. ‘For life,’ he had said. And so it seemed to be true, that life had a way of asserting itself, reinventing itself, of taking an unexpected turn and springing it up in the most unlikely places – in alleyways, beneath uprooted trees, in the cracks of sidewalks, in the palm of your hand. ‘So does death,’ she abruptly thought.” – Sarah from The Book of Living and Dying by Natale Ghent, pages 50-51
“It was the worst part of being in the hospital: the constant fussing without the comfort of human contact. Hands touching without feeling. Performing duties. The needle pricks and examinations pushing the memory of intimacy father and farther below the skin, until it contracted completely and hid in a secret corner of the subconscious, to be realised only, and tantalizingly, in the liquid world of dreams.” – from The Book of Living and Dying by Natale Ghent, pages 181-182