Book Review: Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie

Readers of this blog may recall that I went on a tour of some of London’s bookshops back in February, buying one at each. This was a work I picked up at the Kennington bookshop which, as it turns out, was not far from the area of London where Ruth Picardie lived. It is an area I am quite familiar with, as I was commuting on the bus through Walworth and Elephant & Castle as I read it, seeing the occasional references to places outside the window.

Yet as I sit down to write this review, the afternoon after finishing it, I am somewhat at a loss for how to give it a fair and reasonable review in the same way that I try (to a varying degree of success) with anything else I read. For the title should be fairly unambiguous: Ruth Picardie is dead. She died in September 1997, in her early 30s, after having had cancer for a little under a year. The book is not a memoir or the impartation of a brief lifetime’s worth of wisdom. It mostly consists of letters to and from Ruth in the months between her diagnosis and her death. It is interspersed with the occasional article that she wrote for the Guardian and also features a handful of the responses she received from readers.

Describing herself as a ‘fast-track kind of girl…an evolved post-feminist chick’ one shouldn’t be surprised at her very forthright and occasionally fruity turns of phrase. She gives it what-for and doesn’t beat about the bush in her criticisms of the doctors who she felt passed her from pillar to post, getting diagnoses wrong and not being as straightforward with her as she would have liked.

With the diagnosis of her breast tumour being malignant, one cannot help but feel something of the anger Ruth expresses as well as the desperation to do anything. One of the things that struck me was how quickly she turned to alternative “medicine” in search of anything that might help. But this is not a miserable book. It is a last hurrah of a great spirit of wit and humour. With an opportunity to take a wry look at the end of life, the to-ing and fro-ing of repartee with her friends gives an insight into a world that many of us have been affected by in some way or another, but far fewer live in, day in, day out.

Ruth’s writing then stops fairly abruptly, in the middle of an article which was finished by her sister, Justine. There is then an afterword by Matt, her husband, describing her last days and paying homage to Ruth. From this other perspective, we can see the dehumanisation that cancer can wreak upon people. In line with much of the rest of the book, there is little beating about the bush. I would wholeheartedly recommend the book to you; just be prepared for some fairly frank talk. It’s not a great work of philosophy, nor a guide on how to go through cancer treatment. Indeed, there is much railing against the euphemisms surrounding cancer; the word ‘ontology’ coming in for a lashing in particular.

The top corner of the cover states that 10p from every sale would go to the Lavender Trust. As I bought it 2nd hand, that donation was only made on behalf of the original purchaser. So if you’ve read the book, want to read it or this review has made you think, then here is a link to their website, where you can donate.

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