Publisher: Orion. 3rd September 2020.
There is never enough time. Even when a loved one has been ill for so long and the prognosis is terminal, that moment when they’re gone is seismic. Everything in your world shakes up and resettles around you, but in a totally different shape. When my husband died it had been coming for a long time. He was also suffering. His MS had affected his ability to swallow so he was PEG fed and kept hydrated with a tube directly set into his stomach. He would aspirate saliva, then develop pneumonia in an endless cycle till he decided not to treat it anymore. He’d spent months in hospital, before I received the call from the hospital. Listening to him struggling for breath for 12 hours was torturous. Yet when he took his last breath at 5.15 am, my first thought was ‘no, I wasn’t ready.’
Rebecca Ley’s novel is about a life cut short in this way. Sylvie is given a terminal cancer diagnosis at the age of 38. She and Paul have a marriage that seems perfect. He is a doting husband and father, and loves Sylvie’s intelligence and beauty. There is a certain prickliness to her character, which could make her difficult, but they seem to compliment each other and are great parents to their children Megan and Jude. When Sylvie receives her diagnosis she knows she must help Paul with the aftermath. He needs a manual that helps him deal with a domestic life that’s more complicated than he realises. She also needs to disclose a secret that she’s been keeping for the whole of their married life. As Paul uses her manual to try and negotiate life after Sylvie, he begins to realise just how much she did for them, and how much more indebted he is than he realised. Ley writes about reconciling a life only half lived, but also those compromises made in a marriage and as a mother. This is where he truly gets to know his wife in a way he couldn’t when she was alive.
The book is divided into past and present chapters, so we can be let into Sylvie’s life, but also to form a contrast with after she’s gone. The manual is confessional and written in the first person. Then we have the third person viewpoints of both Paul and Sylvie. Through this we see the beginning of their relationship where everything is romantic to the trickier aspects of their shared life together. I liked that Sylvie isn’t perfect, it’s easy to make a lost loved one into a saint, but Ley avoids that here and it’s all the better for that. Throughout we see that same spiky element to her nature, it’s attractive in a way, but could be seen as hardness or being difficult. As we read through the manual though, after she’s gone, we see a reason for that hardness – Sylvie is this family’s structure, their backbone, and without it what do they have to keep them upright and together?
There is the constant tension of what Sylvie’s long held secret may be, but it wasn’t the thing that kept me reading. It was the slow revelation of her character that held my attention. In Sylvie, Ley has written a truly modern female character who has flaws and makes mistakes, but isn’t cast as a bad person. Often in books about cancer patients, or mothers, there is that temptation to turn them into saints and martyrs. I love that the author made a conscious choice not to do that. Through Sylvie’s choices and her inner monologue as she makes them, we see the complexity of being a woman, a mother and a wife. Sylvie is complicated, sometimes she hurts people and I didn’t always like, or understand her. She is so ‘real’ that I started to think about her in terms of my own friends and family; we don’t always like what they say or do, but we still love them. I felt like I’d got to know a real person and this only added to the devastation when she was gone. I would like to see more women like this in fiction.
The supporting characters were also well written, three dimensional people. I felt particularly for Megan who withdraws as the book goes on. There was also a great contrast between Sylvie and Paul’s mothers, with one very traditional Mum and the other very far from conventional. Ley shows us the chaotic, random and difficult nature of life. This brings home the fact that we never know what’s going to happen next, something people who’ve experienced loss and illness know only too well. I always make sure I tell my new partner and stepdaughters that they should take care and I love them, every time they leave the house. I never want them to wonder how I feel about them, or for something to happen when I haven’t reminded them how much they mean to me. I felt deeply for the family at the heart of this heart-breaking story and it will stay with me for a long time. This extraordinary book is Rebecca Ley’s debut, so I will be following her writing closely to see what’s next.
Meet The Author
I am new to being an author, but the idea that people might read my work and want to connect with me about it is honestly my biggest dream. I would love to hear what you think of For When I’m Gone. You can find click the ‘follow’ button on Amazon, or find me on Twitter or Instagram, where I share fragments of my life raising three children in Hackney, east London. I grew up by the sea in Cornwall and never expected to be raising a family in the inner city, but here we are! I have spent the last sixteen years working as a journalist. I’ve worked on staff at The Times, Sun and Daily Mail, as well as writing a column in The Guardian about my father’s dementia. I’ve also freelanced for a variety of other papers and magazines, including The Telegraph, Psychologies, Mother and Baby and Grazia. And I write scripts for an animation company too.