The new memoir by celebrated novelist Wayson Choy chronicles not one, but two near-death experiences. Employing a spare, restrained approach, Choy depicts a dramatic series of events through an unexpectedly tranquil filter, highlighting themes of family, home, and the fragility of growing old.
The book opens in 2001, when Choy is 62 years old. He’s wheezing as he attempts to lug two heavy suitcases up a tall staircase. It’s just allergies, he tells himself of his persistent, wracking cough. Within a few pages, Choy is flat on his back in a hospital bed, trembling and intubated, surrounded by medical technicians. It isn’t allergies, but a severe asthma attack punctuated by multiple cardiac events. And this won’t be the last time; his heart nearly fails him again several years later, at the book’s close.
Choy avoids tidy homilies or maudlin melodrama in favour of a matter-of-fact tone. This makes the images he chooses all the more vivid and delightful. The moment he’s first able to breathe again without a ventilator, he notices the bedside monitors beeping in time to his heaving gulps, “Ginger Rogers to [his] Fred Astaire.”
He adroitly captures the surreality of an extended hospital stay and rehabilitation, right down to the hallucinations. Subtle glints of humour – such as his description of an origami butterfly so poorly executed it resembles an ordinary envelope – keep the writing far from the sentimental or precious.
Along the way, Choy provides sufficient personal background for the reader to appreciate the significance of the faces that greet him when he first returns to consciousness. He also notes the ways in which his experience influenced his creative process, prompting him to rewrite his last novel, All That Matters.
Relearning how to speak, write, and walk does not inoculate the author from future risk. Choy demonstrates that self-awareness about the body and its dangers cannot save you from every peril. In lovely prose, he captures the beauty and imperfection of being human.