Non-fiction – paperback; Canongate; 160 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Reading Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir may not be the most cheerful thing to do on Boxing Day, but this heartfelt, often brutally honest account of what it is to come to terms with your own death is — paradoxically — a life-affirming read.
Taylor is a scriptwriter turned children’s author turned successful novelist. She’s probably best known for her two novels — Me and Mr Booker, which won the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Pacific Region in 2012, and My Beautiful Enemy, which was nominated for the Miles Franklin Award in 2013. (I have not read either book — but do check Lisa’s review of the latter.)
Skin cancer diagnosis
In 2005, shortly before her 50th birthday, she was diagnosed with stage-four melanoma thanks to a cancerous mole on the back of her knee. Three years later the disease turned up in the lymph nodes of her pelvis and a couple of years later it spread to other parts of her body. She had two operations, which helped halt the progress of the disease.
She kept her illness a secret, only telling her closest friends and her husband, Shin. She wrote two novels and found a measure of literary success.
Then, in December 2014, she had a seizure and was told the melanoma was now in her brain. She had the offending tumour removed successfully, but the disease was now terminal. She made her illness “public” and set about writing this memoir, something which took just a matter of weeks.
In fiction you can sometimes be looser and less tidy, but for much of the time you are choosing what to exclude from your fictional world in order to make it hold the line against chaos. And that is what I’m doing now, in this, my final book: I am making a shape for my death, so that I, and others, can see it clearly. And I am making dying bearable for myself.
A memoir in three parts
Dying: A Memoir is divided into three key parts: the first wrestles with her idea of dying a dignified death even if that means taking things into her own hands (she orders a euthanasia drug from China, pens a suicide note to go with it and locks it away in a cabinet — just in case); the second looks at her parent’s troubled marriage and the tensions that exist between herself and her two older siblings; and the third recalls her childhood growing up in a range of diverse places including Fiji and Kenya.
At all times, Taylor’s voice is self-assured, calm, reasoned. There’s not a shred of self-pity in it:
Mine was the privileged tale of someone who had not truly suffered. The fact that I was dying now was sad, but not tragic. I had lived a full life.
She is always honest, sometimes unbearably so, about the strained relationship she has with her brother and her (late) father, whom she had to cut out of her life when his behaviour became too aggressive and manipulative. But she’s clear-eyed about the reasons for the tensions and knows that under different circumstances the outcomes might have been more positive, but she’s not one for worrying about things she can no longer change.
Yes, I have regrets, but as soon as you start re-writing your past you realise how your failures and mistakes are what define you. Take them away and you’re nothing.
Moments of joy
Through this all there’s a feeling of love in this book — for her (late) mother, with whom she has much empathy, and her husband Shin and their two sons. But there’s also a lot of love for places (Taylor’s father was a pilot, which meant moving houses a lot as a child) and for travel. She holds special affection for Japan, where she met her husband, and Fiji, where she spent some of her childhood.
And she’s enthusiastic about writing and the way she devoted her life to it, mainly to make sense of the world and her place in it. This rather extraordinary memoir is testament to her talent and love of the English language. It’s also testament to an extraordinary woman not afraid to confront her own mortality and to share what she discovers about it along the way.
Cory Taylor died on 5 July 2016, aged 61.