By Sarah Benwell
Published 29th January 2015
Review copy from NetGalley
A captivating and searingly beautiful book from new author Sarah Benwell follows the life of Sora as he processes his experience of an insurmountable disease. What Benwell creates is a poetic gem, full of bittersweet hope and tremendous courage.
It's rare that a book leaves me feeling speechless, but The Last Leaves Falling did just that.
When Sora is diagnosed with ALS (or Lou Gehrig's disease) which shuts down his muscles, he turns to a gift from his doctor, a small book of death poetry from fallen samurai, for wisdom that makes a last impression. In contemporary Japan, a flurry of dark internet activity has led to a worrying rise in cult behaviour and desperate cries for help from young teens. Amidst this worry, increasingly wheelchair bound Sora joins an internet chat room to make friends while keeping his anonymity. There he meets Mai and Kaito. The three embark on a friendship which will bind them together forever.
Benwell's sensitive writing captures a bluntly honest realisation of terminal illness. There is a youth to the voice which is entirely appropriate for Sora's journey with his young friends.
When I set out to read this book I had no idea of the impact it would make on me, nor the sheer skill and stunning creativity of Benwell's writing. Her careful use of imagery and symbolism, such as the seasonal shifting of the leaves in the title, adds an extra layer to the story that makes it so incredibly moving. This is a devastating read, which I mean as the highest compliment. It could be depressing, however what drives the story is an incredible optimism and light which creates an uplifting overall message of truly seizing the day.
It explores the immense kindness of others and the support of true friends who would do literally anything out of their love and open hearts. Topical and timely, this is an excellent book to prompt hard discussions and help form opinions, without preaching or pressuring the reader to decide on a moral standpoint.
My favourite aspect of the book, and the thing that made me truly cry within the first twenty pages, is the overwhelming compassion and unbreakable bond between Sora and his mother. Their relationship is intense, intimate and loving. The difficulties of their situation in no way lessens the support that Sora's mother offers, nor the sacrifices she makes on a daily basis.
This incredible debut novel is brave, unflinching and beautiful from first page to last. Few authors have written such a story without resorting to saccharine platitudes, but Benwell forgoes the easy option to instead deliver a tale that above all speaks of truth. Instead what we read is a subtle love letter to the minutiae of precious relationships and observations of the gift of unappreciated beauty in everyday surroundings, paired with a rage filled cry against the unfair cruelty of incurable disease.
A stunning novel from a new voice in Benwell that more than deserves a place alongside award winners such as A Monster Calls. Fans of Ned Vizzini, Siobhan Dowd, Sally Gardner and Patrick Ness, take note.
'They say a warrior must always be mindful of death, but I never imagined that it would find me like this . . .'