When I picked Cathy Rentzenbrink’s book in the airport last week, I wondered if it was a bad idea, the sleeve sounded incredibly sad – who wants sad on a sun lounger? But this true story sounded so raw and honest that I felt compelled to keep it in my basket. Also, Matt Haig one of my favourite authors endorsed it on the back saying: “This is a book you would want to re-read, during a tough time, to make you feel less alone.”
I shouldn’t have doubted my choice: I read the whole thing in less than 24 hours.
The story begins in Yorskhire, in the family home of Cathy (the author) who goes on a night out with her brother but only one of them comes home. Cathy’s brother Matty was knocked down by a car as he made his way back with friends. The incident is told just a few pages from the start with a brutal honesty that takes your breath away. From thereon in, you are witness to a heartbroken family who try to carry on as their world falls apart.
Cathy brings pre-accident Matty to life with so much warmth and such a deep sense of love only a skilled writer could convey with words alone. You read about him wanting to have known him yourself, hearing her describe him as someone who makes every situation better, every gathering more fun. Clichés are clichés for a reason and if ‘full of life’ could be used to describe anyone it sounds like it was Matty before the accident that changed the course of his life. He was admired and loved by many, and was fiercely bright and going places (he got the best GCSEs in his school, the results were released two weeks after he was knocked down).
Matty’s story is undoubtedly devastating, and because it’s true, it’s incredibly compelling too – you come to care about this family so much, you can’t look away, and have to read on to find out how and if they could possibly come through this (hence finishing it in 24 hours).
Cathy’s storytelling shines so brightly – she paints her parents with such affection – her Irish father and her middle class mother who both fell in love hard as a teenager. When they return to her childhood home in Cornwall later in life, they reveal his name scribed on the wall by her young lovestruck mum, they sound like the cutest, strongest couple. You root for them all as they struggle through Matty’s decline, the misconceptions of others, and their plight to find a new way of being a unit without their beloved son and brother as he was.
Aside from Matty’s journey, you want to find out how Cathy’s life unfolds and how she manages to carry on and cope with the loss of her able brother. She’s northern (I love a northern protagonist, being a northerner myself) and as she goes through life with a brother alive, but only a fraction of him left, her struggles are magnified.
I had a lump in my throat from pretty much the beginning of the book, and as I finished it I was glad for my sunglasses hiding the tears that flowed as Cathy drew her story to a close. I felt so close to the family unit she had shared with us, and knowing they’re all out there in the world still living and dealing with this wrenched my heart.
It’s never gratuitous sadness though, the story is so respectful of Matty, and Cathy has since helped others who have lived through similar tragedies. Ultimately as Matt Haig says on the sleeve, the story has hope threaded through it as Cathy works out not just how to grow up but how to do it with this devastation around her: “It’s a cruel world but there is beauty in it and perhaps the trick is in what we choose to pursue.”
She has so much strength, and I have so much admiration for her and her family. This story will stay with me for a long, long time and if someone in Cathy’s position can have hope, there is absolutely hope for us all.
“I have worked out that the only way to be alive in the world is to carry out acts of love and hope for the best.”
Read if: You enjoy true stories and have a big heart.
Avoid if: You really can’t handle sad books and avoid finishing it on a commuter train. (That said I honestly think everyone should read this).