Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff

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Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: David Rieff, son of Susan Sontag, tells the story of his mother's final illness and death. This isn't a misery memoir but a thought-provoking look at death and what the terminally ill need. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 978-1847080516

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David Rieff's mother had cheated death twice. In 1974 she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and no one rated her chances of surviving but she felt special and underwent radical surgery and experimental treatments. She survived but the damage done to her body and, her son believes, to her sexuality was immense. The cancer resurfaced in the nineteen nineties as a uterine sarcoma but was beaten by chemotherapy and still she felt special. It was only when she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome – for which there was no cure. His mother admitted to him that she no longer felt special. She was Susan Sontag, essayist and scientific rationalist. Three years after her death in 2004 her son was still overwhelmed by guilt about her death.

It wasn't the guilt of not having done something which he could have done, but the guilt and disbelief of not being able to do anything. Floundering in the face of his mother's avid determination that she would survive he found himself wilfully misinterpreting any information of MDS which might provide, if not a cure, then some hope that the outcome would be less stark. This was obviously what Sontag wanted.

Or was it? She was a scientific rationalist who hungered after knowledge and truth. It wasn't expressions of love that she wanted, or reassurances from her new age or Buddhist friends. She wanted the truth but it had to be a hopeful truth rather than a stark death sentence.

Normally, I don't take my pleasures this sadly. I thought that I would find this book depressing and it the early pages this was compounded by the fact that Rieff himself seemed very self-centred. I'm glad I persisted though. His writing it fluent, descriptive, almost poetic in places and once he moved away from the subject of his own guilt he had much to say that was thought-provoking and interesting.

Prior to his mother's death he had no doubt that the only course of action open to him was to provide this positive reassurance that she seemed to need, but he's since had doubts or had doubts expressed to him, about whether or not he was right. Did it lead to his mother having treatment which was costly and ultimately of no benefit to her or, conversely, did receiving this treatment allow her to retain her tenuous hold on sanity?

After Sontag's death the physician who had been treating her wrote to her son and said that the medical profession must do better with regard to cancer. Quite a high percentage of the population still dies from the disease, but in many ways that's because they're not dying of other diseases or accidents at an earlier age. Many illnesses which had high mortality rates have been eliminated or are now controllable and the medical profession hopes that the same thing will happen with cancer – that it will become chronic rather than fatal. But Rieff poses the question as to what we will ten die of, as we all have to die of something. What will be the next major killer?

No, I'm not going to suggest that you take this away as a holiday read, but as a short, contemplative and thought-provoking read it really is good value. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For another memoir about dying and death we can recommend Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes.

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Buy Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff at Amazon.com.


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