Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi *****

UK Publishing Date: 4 Feb 2016. 256 pages

I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to read this book. Like many others throughout the world, cancer has claimed family and friends very close to me and that does skew how you approach a subject like this. It felt like it was never going to be the most joyous of reads. The story of a man in his thirties diagnosed with lung cancer. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Paul Kalanithi was an extraordinary man. A scholar with a love of poetry, literature and the Arts, with degrees in English Literature and History before getting the calling to become a doctor, then becoming a renowned neurosurgeon. He was one of those men that come along only once in a generation. A brilliant mind, with a talent for puzzle solving and a scientific curiosity that kept him looking for answers.

“When Breath Becomes Air” is a book of two halves. Part one deals with his life before diagnosis. The efforts that his mother made to ensure that he and his brother received an Ivy League education in a small town with few facilities. Discussing his love of poetry and the great works of literature that helped to shape his early life. In 2007, Paul graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine, winning the Lewis H. Nahum Prize for outstanding research and membership in the Alpha Omega Alpha medical honour society. His progression as a student doctor and then finally as a neurosurgeon. Sometimes the descriptions are a little technical but nothing you can’t handle after ten years watching Gray’s Anatomy.

Despite his intelligence and his strength there were struggles even here. His relationship with wife Lucy suffering under the weight of his hospital residency. At the time of his diagnosis they were trying to keep their marriage together. The long hours and exhausting work meant that they were spending little time on them. It was all about planning for the future.

The second part of the book covers both the medical aspects of his diagnosis and also his personal search for meaning and validation. Realising that he was no longer able to practice as a surgeon he was forced to consider what he did want to do with his remaining time. When he emailed his best friend to tell him he had terminal cancer Paul wrote, “The good news is I’ve already outlived two Brontes, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything”.

This is a beautiful book. Completely heart-warming and in equal parts heart breaking.

“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.” Paul Kalanithi.

Supplied by Net Galley and the Publisher in exchange for an honest review.

You can get a copy of the book here:
When Breath Becomes Air

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