Friday, 16 January 2015

The Last Leaves Falling, Sarah Benwell

Pages: 352
Publisher: Definitions
Release Date: 29th January 2014
Edition: UK e-proof, NetGalley review copy

And these they are. My final moments. They say a warrior must be mindful of death, but I never imagined that it would find me like this...

Japanese teenager Sora is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gerig’s disease). Lonely and isolated, Sora turns to the ancient wisdom of the samurai for guidance and comfort. But he also finds hope in the present; through the internet he finds friends that see him, not just his illness. This is a story of friendship and acceptance, and testing strength in an uncertain future.

Sarah Benwell’s debut is a beautifully told story about illness, death and how to live life to the fullest. The Last Leaves Falling is gorgeous.

Being set in Japan - Kyoto, I think - his novel is full of subtle Japanese myth, legend, religious aspects and cultural references. I know very little about Japanese culture so I lapped it up, and I want to learn more. Especially about the mythology and legends; they’re dark and otherworldly and completely fascinating. But I was sad to see that there wasn’t as much of the Samurai warriors as I was expecting from The Last Leaves Falling, but the appearances they did make were powerful and touching in the impact they had on Sora.

Against the background of mythology and culture, Sora is battling ALS (made famous last summer by the Ice Bucket Challenge) which is an untreatable, degenerative disease that eats away at every aspect of the body but leaves the mind intact. Sora is going to die. The steps his illness took were minor at first but they soon started to steamroller and it was so, so sad to read. And the reactions from the general public upon seeing Sora in his wheelchair and being helped by his Mama made me so angry.

When Sora joins an online chatroom to try and make some friends who don’t see his illness first, he finds that him and all of the other members are receiving emails about a suicide club for teenagers that is spreading across Japan. It’s a horrible thing to think about, but it plants the idea of assisted suicide and what that allows terminally ill patients like Sora. It’s a very delicate subject that Sarah Benwell broaches sensitively and openly, passing no judgement or opinion either way which I think is perfect. It certainly made me think and reaffirm the thoughts I already had on the topic.

If The Last Leaves Falling can be so touching, so emotional and so accomplished as a debut novel, Sarah Benwell has quite a future.

Thanks to RHCP and NetGalley for the review copy.


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