From a terminal cancer diagnosis to the existential horror of climate chaos, the author of The Friend considers finality and forgiveness
American author Sigrid Nunez had been somewhat overlooked before her seventh novel, The Friend, won the 2018 National Book award. Like its predecessor, What Are You Going Through is told from the perspective of a writer in late middle age, and the primary narrative revolves around the suicide of an old friend: in this case, a woman who, after a terminal cancer diagnosis, asks for assistance to end her life. It opens in 2017 with the narrator attending a lecture that details the insurmountable problems of the climate crisis, as well as “the inevitable next great flu pandemic”. The talk, which asserts that reproduction itself is selfish in the face of climate collapse, ends with the suggestion that all humans can do is come to terms with devastation, “love and forgive one another as best we could. And learn how to say goodbye.” The novel is an attempt at this: both personally and culturally, it concerns itself with the end of things.
What Are You Going Through is at its best in this investigation of finality, asking questions about the will to survive, its value and its cost. After initially refusing treatment because of the side effects, the unnamed friend experiences a feeling of anticlimax when she briefly believes that it has worked. The complex intimacy between the women, as they spend time together in a holiday house and prepare for the end, is powerfully affecting.