Book Review: What We Leave Behind by Matthew Alan

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We like to think that we will live forever. But the sad reality is that we won’t.

Matthew Alan’s “What We Leave Behind” explores the essence of living and dealing with the realities of death. In a style that mirrors the twin characteristics of life and death, the novel juxtaposes Jane’s, the main protagonist, past and present.

In the present, the thirty-five-year-old Jane’s ecstatic happiness upon knowing that she’s with child has been immediately doused by the knowledge that she has a cancer. And as her life crumbles, the story pauses and brings us back to a time of childhood, of happiness, of living. We get to know the young Jane as she faces life head-on, refusing to let the reality of being an orphan stops her from enjoying life. Pretty soon, the little girl’s energy finds a new home and a new family, in the person of Jason and Willa. It’s a home filled with love and happiness.

In this novel, we see a girl who dares to stand-up to racism, who makes the people all around her happy, who loves fully and without regret. We see an athlete who runs faster than anybody else, who pushes her body until she wins marathon after marathon.

I guess this is the only thing that I would have wanted the novel to improve on. More often than not, the novel tells the story. Sometimes, I want it to show the story. As a reader, I want to feel the cold wind flashing through Jane’s face. I want to feel the blood coursing through her body as she blocks off all the sound, bends her knee, and sprints forward. I want to see her face split into a wide smile when her body touches the finish line.

Notwithstanding, the novel provides an interesting parallelism of Jane’s battle here and now. As she battles for her life in the present, we see a determined lady that simply refuses to give up. Life itself is the greatest battle. It might be the most important battle we will ever have to fight.

 

“When I was younger, I never understood endings. Never appreciated how something could be so finite as to have a real point where it would never be, could never be again.

If I think about sunsets, lost loves, last kisses, even the last time I made love to an ex-boyfriend before it ended, there was rarely an opportunity of appreciation for those events recognizing what they were. Never fully did I grasp that in that moment, that experience I may have taken for granted or chalked up to another in a never-ending series of events, was the last one. The last time I would see that person in the light of love, or even in the light of a normal day. I assumed there would be infinite kisses, numerous sunsets, love-making that lasts forever.

If I can leave you all with another piece of hindsight, be thankful for your love daily. Never take it for granted, and never assume you will have more. Never.”

 

Yet no matter how much we fight, sometimes the most heartbreaking reality is the fact that we can’t win. We won’t live forever.

I find my tears flowing freely, unconsciously, when I read Mr. Kincaid’s, Jane’s husband, breakdown scene. It’s catharsis, to allow my tears to flow freely. As his wife’s primary caregiver, the feeling of desperation, of clutching at straws, of begging for more life, of Mr. Kincaid is raw and poignant.

To eat is to live, and as he begs Jane to eat, Mr. Kincaid is trying begging her to continue fighting. The decision to eat is the decision to cling to life, no matter how much it tries to slip away.

Being humans, our intense need for people to stay with us manifests into intense rage. And as we fight the deep sadness within us, we beg God to spare the people that we love. It is painful; the anger, the heartbreak, and the grief.

 

“You need to face this situation with conviction. No doubts. No fears. Just a focused desire to make something happen, to make something change. You only have control over a few things in this world; your attitude, your desire, and your focus are among them. Even if you fail in the end, if you made the process count, you will have won.”

Amidst this, what I find comforting about the book is that it brings us to the ugly so that we can see the beauty. In battling death, we see life. And everything that is real and valuable about life.

What makes life precious is not the guaranteed long life. Rather, it is the realization that life is short. Because it is short, laugh. Because it is short, love. Don’t waste it hating on someone. Use it to care, to run, to write, to sing, to play. Use it to spend time with the people that really matters. Use it to do the things that you love the most.

And there’s one thing that I would have wanted to tell my brother, whose situation is similar with Mr. Kincaid. As much as we realize that our life is short, we also realize that the people that we love aren’t infinite either. The happy moments that you spend together are the moments where you’ve battled death. If such time is spent doing something meaningful, happy, and full of love, such time is the moment that you and her truly live.

Indeed, as people pass, what do people live behind? In this novel, we see what they are.

People leave memories. Memories of happy companionship, of a life that loves, of ignoring the petty nuisance of everyday life, of dealing with the battles of life with grace and humility.

And as we grieve the loss of a precious person, we live. Because the best way to honor the life we have, while others get theirs taken, is to live a well-lived life. ###

Mathew Alan’s “What We Leave Behind” is available in Amazon.

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