Book review: When Breath Becomes Air

THE line between life and death has never been explored quite so personally as in Paul Kalanithi’s wrenching memoir. 

Paul Kalanithi

Bodley Head, €16.75;

ebook, €12.24

Its opening casts the shadow: Paul and wife Lucy, clutching one another on a hospital bed following his diagnosis with terminal lung cancer at 36.

In lucid prose, Paul explains his shift from English degree to neurosurgery — a conscious search for life’s meaning, an irony not lost on him — and subsequent lessons learned either side of the doctor/patient divide.

The life of a junior neurosurgeon is gripping and relentless: Paul struggles with the pastoral more than the procedural, gradually accepting his primary role of helping patients and families to acknowledge their circumstances.

When his illness catches up with him, Paul explores his condition and altered self-definition with impossible grace — is he a doctor? husband? — probing until the last. 

The final pages are moving, humble, and impossible to ignore.


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