What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

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Review by Annabel

My first exposure to Nunez was through her breakthrough novel The Friend, finally gaining her prizewinner status (the US National Book Award) and now reprints of earlier novels, which I’m really keen to read.

In The Friend the unnamed narrator has to care for the dog of a close friend who committed suicide. What Are Going Through has a somewhat similar premise, in that the narrator this time is helping a terminally ill friend prepare to kill herself. The styles are similar in both, interspersing the ongoing story with the narrator’s musings about aspects of her life and reflections on literature, sprinklings of recounted conversations with others, including her ill friend. This blend of plot and observation reminded me of Jenny Offill’s novels The Dept of Speculation and Weather, but done at length, rather than in Offill’s style of vignettes told in short paragraphs.

As the novel begins, the narrator has arrived in town to visit her friend, staying in an airbnb where a cat had been promised, but had died in between booking and arrival. The host didn’t want to talk about it.

And it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t emotion that had made her change the subject like that but rather worry that I might later complain. Depressing host talked too much about dead cat. The sort of comment you saw on the site all the time.

That dead-pan humour is typical of Nunez’s writing.

That evening, the narrator had booked a place at a talk by a professor with challenging social views on the environment and the end of the world. The talk was a rehash of his magazine article which she had read before, until he asked – should we stop having children? – but there was no time allocated for questions. After the lecture, she tells us in a jaw-dropping but throwaway line – the professor is her ex! 

The narrator visits her friend again, who describes her tempestuous relationship with her unlikeable daughter, and she agrees to go with her friend to spend her last weeks at a ‘Shaker luxe’ rental by the sea in New England, where her friend will take her pills at a time unknown to the narrator so she isn’t implicated in the suicide. Her friend texts her: ‘I promise to make it as much fun as possible.’

The trip does not go quite to plan initially, but after having to go back for the pills, the two women bond on the sofa watching Buster Keaton films, her friend gradually needing more sleep as the days go on. The narrator is enjoying looking after her, just being there for her. She considers writing a journal of her friend’s last days, but doesn’t in the end.

The way that Nunez blends in her narrator’s other stories, literary musings alongside the main drift is expertly done and lifts the reader from what could otherwise be a rather depressing state of affairs, and there is that sense of humour too of course. The narrator is a writer too, and in her recounting to us, it feels totally natural to quote from her literary touchstones and how they reflect on her life, including the book’s title, which comes from Simone Weil (but minus Weil’s question mark intriguingly).

Her friend’s determination to seek a good death on her own terms is so different to that portrayed in Helen Garner’s novel The Spare Room, in which one friend puts upon another, while she undergoes an alternative (useless but expensive) treatment for her cancer, clinging to every last straw and riding roughshod over her relationships with friends and family. Garner’s novella was beautifully written and brutally honest about the imposition placed on the caring friend, but it was not an enjoyable read at all. Nunez’s narrator and her friend luckily have a different relationship, and despite the incipient death and the sadness it will bring, What Are You Going Through is ultimately life-affirming.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through, (Virago, 2020). 978-0349013664, 208pp., hardback.

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