It goes without saying, and yet this review by necessity will say it anyway, that there is a searing, jarring finality about death.
There are many other things in our life that we can duck and weave around, mould and shape into a size or shape that we like, or can at least live with, but not death; it comes for us in a one-size fits all fashion, and both the person directly in the firing line and those watching and loving hopelessly from the sidelines have no choice but to do let it do its terrible thing.
The only real agency left in a situation so bleak and final is how you handle the lead-up to the end of life and in the vast majority of cases, because who doesn’t want to feel there is hope and a way to defeat death, or at least mute its fearsomely ferocious impact, that takes the form of some inspirational tale of squaring up against the odds, holding your head high and daring the seemingly inevitable to take you with it.
It’s a wholly understandable reaction, and likely one this reviewer would take if push were to ever come to terminal shove, but in Megan Albany’s humourously serious and poignantly laugh-out-loud novel, The Very Last List of Vivian Walker, it’s gloriously refreshing to find a protagonist who simply deals with the situation as it is and doesn’t try to pretend it’s anything but a giant s**tshow of hellishess.
“At first sight, some people think I look pregnant until the notice my stylish grey skin, then they look away. I am pregnant with death. The tumours are bloating my stomach but there’s still so much to get done, and only a couple of months left to do it all. Unfinished business. I need to write a list.
* Clean the fridge
* Declutter the playroom
* Fill my script
* Get my tax up to date
* Choose songs for my funeral
* Restore Poppa’s lowboy
* Clean out my wardrobe
* Sand the French doors into the bedroom
* Amend my will
* Write a letter to my son
* Delete my Tinder profile
* Give my husband a list” (P. xi)
That doesn’t mean she’s okay with dying, of course; far from it – she has an adorably vivacious eight-year-old son Ethan from whom she doesn’t want to be parted, two close friends, the wild and irreverent Marsha, and the thoughtfully intense, caring Sally, and yes, even a husband, Clint, who she has long lost respect for but whom she might still possibly love somewhere deep down in the bowels of their sort-of made the distance marriage.
But Vivian would like to live, she also sagely accept that with catastrophically advanced cancer that is simply not going to happen, especially not in a life blighted by a scarred childhood lived with a mother with severe mental health issues which has taught her to keep her defenses up and to treat everyone bar a select few as battles with whom to be waged.
It hasn’t been a good life in a number of key ways, with Vivian estranged from her polished but broken younger sister Catherine, intolerant of Clint’s many failings (as she perceives then; to be fair, she is an unrelentingly harsh and brutally honest critic) and not quite capable of finishing anything she’s ever started.
Including, rather ironically, the act of living it seems.
And yet, in-between the damn ordinariness of her life, Vivian slowly begins to discover that she’s actually left a whole lot of love in her wake; this slow-moving epiphany, which Vivian only grudgingly accepts means anything, doesn’t become some hallelujah cry from the mountaintop, a triumph of enlightened understanding over the dark gathering clouds of death, and honestly The Very Last List of Vivian Walker is the better for that.
This arrestingly honest and archly funny book does what so many others don’t – it looks death in the eye, admits it sucks to high heaven and then thankfully beyond measure, doesn’t pretend that the journey to its very mortal conclusion is going to be epic and inspiring as a Hollywood weepy.
In fact, The Very Last List of Vivian Walker is all about how utterly routine the dreadful march to death, and all the goodbyes it entails from saying farewell to family and friends to more anniversaries and special events is, that much of it takes place in the middle of dishes to be done, school runs to be completed and meals to be cooked.
Death is, despite the sense of meaning we like to think we gain from it being larger-than-life (oh the irony of that word usage) is very, very ordinary and far from the string-playing dramatism of a movie on the big screen and The Very Last List of Vivian Walker blessedly acknowledges that in ways that prove deeply affecting and freeing.
As this reviewer was nursing his much-loved mother through ovarian cancer which sadly ended up like it does for Vivian, it became quickly apparent that much of the journey, honestly all of it bar a few panicked middle of the night calls to a 24/7 nursing service, was dreadfully dull.
Not in a bored and I-resent-this kind of way – it was a privilege to be there for a mother who had always given so much to us; rather, that so many days passed with the clock ticking, lunches having to be prepared, kids having to kept amused (nieces and nephews were always on hand) and the sun rising and setting, all while my beautiful laying dying on a hospital bed in the family home.
“It is four o’clock in the morning, and my brain has decided now is the perfect time to review my whole life. Every single person who has ever pissed me off is now flashing before my eyes, and I am rehearsing what I should have said to them, imagining tossing back my hair, telling them how these days my life is so much better than theirs. I am, of course, carefully leaving out the part about being on death’s door.” (P. 182)
Albany captures this sense of desperate ordinariness perfectly and in ways that affect anyone who has been through a similar situation deeply with The Very Last List of Vivian Walker a profoundly affecting admission that death often creeps in the quietness and seeming nothingness of life.
But it also embraces the idea that this very ordinariness is what grants many people power in their dying days, the power, like Vivian who loves her lists and is determined to tick all the boxes she can before she dies, to go out as they wish, with things done and tidied up (or at least attempted to be: the flawed nature of life persists even in the face of death, it seems).
But as Vivian discovers you can try to tidy things up neatly but that doesn’t always work that way, and while she never really expects that she will triumph where in so much of her life she has not, she wants to at least give it a try in amongst the school concerts, disappointing but sort of sweet date nights and saying goodbye to the ordinary things of her life which suddenly feel irreplaceably, impossibly important.
The most wonderful thing about The Very Last List of Vivian Walker is that it feels so real, so very touch-your-heart-to-its-depths real; you will weep and laugh with recognition reading it, and you will sigh with sad recognition at its many beautifully, cleverly and honestly delivered truths all while realising how precious the ordinary is and that maybe all of that routine-soaked, flawed, messy, lovely, happily silly humanity you roll your eyes at and wish from existence on a regular basis is the best thing you have going and will ever have going, even on the precarious, strewn with unwashed clothes and half-eaten meals, slope to death.