Check out a piece written by Andy Jones author of The Last Act of Adam Campbell that asks the question: is it possible to write a feel-good book about death?
Is it possible to write a feel-good book about death?
I’d like to tell you that my new book is a feel-good book. But when I tell you what it’s about – you might hesitate to believe me.
The Last Act of Adam Campbell is about a group of terminally patients, none expected to live longer than a year. Real feel-good stuff, right? But stay with me a while.
They meet in group therapy and, through various circumstances, decide to put on a play – a kind of mash-up of Shakespeare’s Greatest deaths: Romeo with poison, Hamlet in a duel, the Duke of Clarence drowning in wine, Antigonus perused by a bear.
This is one way the characters are preparing for and facing their own deaths. Not by retreating from life and waiting for the inevitable, but by embracing a new and ambitious challenge.
I did a lot of research before eventually writing this book, and I realised that one of the worst things about dying is the living.
They mean well, the living, but they tend to dwell. They fuss, they worry and they can suffocate their loved ones with compassion.
The living say things like: ‘We’re all dying when you think about it.’ Something that, in Adam’s words, ‘trivialises what I’m going through.’
But in the company of others living their final Christmas, final spring, final summer – the dying can can drop the mask they wear at home. They can be honest and irreverent and they can be themselves.
The challenge of putting a play together – and quickly – gives the characters in this book a shared purpose. They make new friends, support each other and find a strength they didn’t know they possessed.
People fall in love in this book, they learn and grow, they forgive and are forgiven. And they laugh. A lot.
If my book had a favourite film, it would be Four Weddings and a Funeral. I hope it has a similar balance of tragedy, comedy and humanity. It certainly has a similarly diverse cast.
The Rude Mechanicals, as the characters in my novel call themselves, include a former junky, a nun, a cantankerous train driver, a teenage girl, a widower, a mother, a father. They all have stories and lives outside of the group, issues they want to confront in the short time they have left.
There’s a mouse too. She lives under the stage on which these Rude Mechanicals rehearse, and bond, and fight, and . . . well, a lot happens on that stage. But mainly they rehearse, and our mouse hears it all. This mouse can quote Shakespeare, and these are her favourite lines:
Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
And the opposite is also true. The dying must live.
There’s an expression that the group discuss in the book. That we should ‘live every day as if it’s our last’.
We might be tempted to interpret it as meaning we should go wild, indulge, be reckless. But that’s the living for you again; always too far from their mortality to appreciate the gravity of a fast-approaching final day.
Live every day as if it’s your last, Adam realises, means that we must live it as if it’s our last with the people we love. As if it’s our last chance to tell them how important they are, to be kind to them, and attentive and grateful. Because, as Adam understands all to well, that day will come.
Of course, this book is emotional. A recurring comment from reviewers is that this book should come with a packet of tissues. But the other thing reviewers say is that the book is uplifting. Hopeful. And funny.
After all, tragedy and comedy go hand in hand – as any sixteenth century playwright will tell you.
If you do read the story of Adam Campbell and his band of happy, tragic, ill-fated and mismatched friends, I hope it makes you smile. I hope it makes you feel good.
Just don’t forget the tissues.