When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

Beautifully written, impossible to put down, but heartbreaking enough to make you want to, and philosophical enough to make you think for weeks afterwards, Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air took my breath away… pun intended. I’m a voracious reader – I like to read until my eyes can’t stay open, and if I have the time I’ll read the book over the span of a few days. I finished When Breath Becomes Air in one. It is short, which I’ll admit did help, but I did not want to stop reading until the very last page.

The book is tinged with tragedy from the very first day – you know what is going to happen right from the beginning, but it builds and builds until it’s completely abrupt ending. Had this been a work of fiction I would have been bitterly disappointed at the ending, which feels rushed, but this is non-fiction, and knowing what caused the ending – the author’s death – makes it all the more real, and poignant.

Paul was about to complete his training as a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. It is inoperable, and doctors are unwilling to tell him how much time he has. At thirty six he has his whole life ahead of him, and he suddenly finds himself in the shoes of the patient, after ten years of being the doctor. The book starts briefly with the diagnosis, revealing that it happens just as his marriage is breaking down, then flashes back to follow Paul’s career.

Paul studied literature before moving onto medicine, and was somewhat obsessed with words, as is shown by the various quotes peppered throughout the book. In saying that, this is an easy read, both because of its length and because as much as Paul loved language, he doesn’t mince words. He takes us on a journey spanning ten years, a number of patients, and constantly encourages the reader to consider every viewpoint carefully, and to wonder – what would you do in the face of death?

The last part of the book takes us through Paul’s journey post-diagnosis. The treatments he is subjected to, going back to work, and deciding to have a child knowing there is a good chance he won’t be around. He makes several decisions which I struggled to understand his reasoning behind them, including his decision to go back to work, potentially making his health worse, and taking him away from his wife (who he admitted to having marital difficulties with before the diagnosis) and family. But that is the point of this book I think – to make you question what you would do in his shoes. What would you do if you had a limited amount of time left? Would you go back to work? Spend time with your family? Write a book?

Eventually, Paul’s health gets so bad that he does the latter – something that he has always wanted to do. He doesn’t quite finish it though, and the last section about his diagnosis and beyond is short and as I mentioned, cuts off quite abruptly. It really does make you think about what you are doing with your life, and what it is that drives you, and what makes you happy because the truth of it is that you just never know when your time is up.

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TITLE: When Breath Becomes Air
AUTHOR(S): Paul Kalanithi
PUBLISHER: Penguin Random House
RRP: $37.00
ISBN: 9781847923677

JJ is a writer by night, & a Product Manager by day. She loves young adult and children’s fiction and is the co-founder of NZ Booklovers. She has a Masters in Creative Writing, and is an ex-English tutor. She lives in Auckland with her husband, daughter, and two chihuahuas.

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