Book Review: Before Everything by Victoria Redel

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A (very) brief plot overview

Five childhood friends who call themselves The Old Friends unite to spend time with Anna, a pivotal member of the group who has refused anymore treatment after her cancer returns for the fourth time and only has a short while left to live.

What’s good about it?

First of all, this book is solely responsible for pulling me out of the reading slump I was in. For the past few weeks, I’ve been starting a book, getting about halfway through and just losing all interest in it, but Before Everything kept me reading until the end and has reignited my passion for a good book, so I owe it that.

I have to start by saying that this is a beautifully written book. Every word is perfectly chosen. When Redel writes about scenes in the characters past, it’s done so well that you think you are there. When she writes about the true horrors of Anna’s illness, it is with unflinching, accurate detail. The book seems so real that you almost feel like you are the sixth member of The Old Friends, sitting in the room with them all and reminiscing.

Every character seems real because Redel writes about them as if they are human and not edited, fictitious beings. Sometimes when people write about death, they cut the ‘bad’ out of the character who is to die, but this book doesn’t. Of course everyone reminisces with Anna and remembers how fantastic she has been through their lives, but there are also times when you see Anna’s human flaws. If anything they make her more loveable and her death more upsetting. It’s not just Anna who has been written as a fully formed character of depth, though – every single person in this book seems ‘real’. Anna’s friends feel torn between wanting to support her decision but also angry at her for leaving them. The pull between wanting to be there for her and wanting her to be there for them is really well crafted. As a reader, you go on that journey with the characters, feeling the emotions that they feel and sharing their grief as well as their wishes. This book represents real people and real grief, something as I reader I felt drawn into.

I love that this book tackles the topical issue of someone having the right to die. So many people in Anna’s life want her to try treatment again or keep fighting, but Anna doesn’t. The book shows how a choice like this can divide people, other’s respecting her wishes, other’s not wanting her wishes to be true and other’s simply against it. These are big, heavy issues to talk about, but the book never looses sight of the fact that in the middle of this all is a person. So often when we talk about people refusing treatment or assisted dying, we forget that at the centre of it all is someone who is tired, who is in pain. This book never forgets that and to me that is one of it’s biggest strengths.

At it’s very core, this is a book about female friendship. It covers all areas of friendships from the more negative aspects such as secrets between only some in the group, jealousy of new friends and feeling excluded, to the more positive aspects such as unwavering support, complex, unbreakable ties and unconditional love. The complexity of these relationships is so relatable and so well written that I defy anyone not to recognise them self in a character or in an anecdote that is shared.

What’s not so good about it?

If you’re a crier like me, this book probably isn’t one to devour in one sitting. I read it in stages over a few days, taking a break when I thought I was getting a bit too wobbly chinned on the train. I never actually cried, but I did a lot of self reflecting on my own friendships and relationships whilst reading it. If you want a lighthearted, forget-about-it-when-you-finish-it kind of book then this one probably isn’t for you.

Also as the narrative flits from a range of different narrators, from the five women to the nurse to Anna’s ex husband to Anna’s brother, on the odd occasion it can get a little disorientating and take a few sentences to realise who is speaking and what era they are speaking about. However, these moments are really rare and didn’t take away from my reading experience.

Rate me

A solid 9/10. This is a brilliant book, one I would recommend to a book club.

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