This taut and troubling novella by American essayist and storywriter Jo Ann Beard follows 46-year-old Cheri Tremble as she battles breast cancer all the way to the last seconds of her life. Based on a true story, the book is a startling retelling of the decline and eventual death by assisted suicide of Cheri, who is assailed by visceral memories of childhood, marriage and motherhood.
A socialist with ‘two exotic wild-haired daughters’, Sarah and Kate, Cheri has devoted her life to putting her principles into practice. After labouring in factories and mills, she’s working as a train conductor when she receives her diagnosis. A mastectomy follows, which leaves her with nerve damage so debilitating she can’t walk. When the cancer metastasises, she’s given two years or less to live. An inability to tolerate painkillers and the possibility of spinal paralysis make her think about ‘a bullet, a rope, a long sparkling plunge from a bridge’. This eventually leads her to the controversial Detroit-based euthanasia practitioner Jack Kevorkian.
Once she’s decided on death, the world and the passing of time become almost unbearably beautiful. Like the dying Dennis Potter seeing the blossom afresh, she marvels at the ‘fall, and the way the landscape can levitate with colour … a halved orange on a blue plate … all lovely beyond words’. She settles her affairs and aims to get through one last Christmas.
The journey to Detroit with her daughters and her best friend is rendered with exquisite restraint and precision. The concluding pages, in which we experience the process of assisted dying in real time along with Cheri, are as powerful as the close of The Death of Ivan Ilyich.