Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir by David Rieff - review by John Gray

John Gray

Revolt Against Death

Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir


Granta Books 192pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

When I met Susan Sontag in the summer of 2003, not much more than a year before she died, my overwhelming impression was of her unquenchable vitality. Six months later a routine test revealed she had a lethal cancer. Swimming in a Sea of Death is her son’s account of Sontag’s last days – her refusal to accept that her condition was hopeless, and the desperate struggle that followed after she opted for a bone-marrow transplant that seemed to offer a reprieve from death. She had defied the odds in the mid 1970s when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, and lived through a rare uterine version of the illness in the late 1990s. When, in the spring of 2004, the cancer was diagnosed as being terminal, she believed she could beat the odds again.

The fact that she had overcome life-threatening illness in the past gave her some reason for thinking in this way, but Sontag’s refusal of death was not the result of any rational assessment of probability. It was rooted in the way she lived. Ambition and resistance, Rieff writes, were ‘two

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