16 July 2015

The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell

I had my eye on Sarah Benwell’s THE LAST LEAVES FALLING for a long time before I finally got my hands on it. It sounded absolutely amazing:

Abe Sora, a teenager in Kyoto, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and has slowly withdrawn from the world as his physical abilities diminish. As he takes solace in the writings of ancient samurai, he also finds unexpected friendship with a pair of teens on an Internet forum.

A simple enough setup, but I just knew it was going to be beautiful and heartbreaking.

First off, I need to say how beautiful Sora’s narration was. I never once felt like I was seeing an alien culture: Sora was Japanese, but I was seeing Japan through his eyes, and it was completely normal to him. That’s rare in books like this.

I loved every character in THE LAST LEAVES FALLING, from Sora’s friends Kaito and Mai, to his loving and dutiful mother, to his riotous grandparents. Sora stayed focused on the positive parts of his life, never wallowing, even when he had every right too. He was realistic—fatalistic, even—but he was not depressing.

My heart ached as Sora contemplated his own future, and even more so, his mother’s future. As he depended on her for more and more, his guilt grew until it was nearly suffocating. Sora’s struggle was clear and heartbreaking and hopeful all at once.

I think there’s something hard to contemplate about dying with dignity. It’s a fraught subject, and one that’s so heavily wrapped up in religion and politics (at least, in America) that it can be incendiary. But THE LAST LEAVES FALLING treats the subject with care and compassion and reflection.

The ending was lyrical and quiet. Normally I would have wanted a big, grand cathartic ending, but that would have been both out-of-place with Sora’s story and, I think, culturally inauthentic. I have two Japanese in-laws, and I’ve talked with them at length about cultural differences, including how much more demonstrative Westerners are than they are used to. Benwell reigned herself in, but I know she has the chops to go big if the situation calls for it.

I can’t wait to see what else she writes.