I can with all honesty say that I would never have picked up Now and at the Hour of Our Death had it not been this month’s Read Around the World Book Club selection. I would not have considered a non-fiction book written about an author’s experience shadowing a palliative care team in the remote regions of Portugal to be my thing. My response to this book was therefore a huge surprise to me as I thought it was a really well written book full of insight into how we human beings deal with death and dying, which left me not only with sadness but also with beauty and hope.
The book is split into three sections, all with very different writing styles. The first section caused a lot of discussion in the book club as it was very much a flow of consciousness; a collection of notes, thoughts and emotions the author had before she started writing the rest of the book. I loved this but I know others saw it as disjointed and hard to engage with. I don’t usually like such fragmented text but I thought this was a really clever way of immersing the reader in the situation the author finds herself in. I was looking through her eyes, experiencing her snippets of observations, thoughts and emotional responses. Not everything made sense to me but I think the point is that different snippets will speak to our different experiences of death.
I thought the contrasting thoughts on death were striking, from the idea of a warm, strong hearted doctor conveying a ‘good death’ to the idea that nothing lasts and all is futile. I really liked the survival tips that Marques notes in order to help herself cope with her observations. There are just so many responses to death and dying in such a short space that I think it will take time to process it all; from fear to denial, to guilt, to class, to the role of God…
And throughout all this I think Marques is successful in portraying the aging Portuguese landscape, where the old are fading and the young are few and far between. Where there is much physical beauty such as the Maria icons in bell jars, the cherry blossom and the deepest purple horizons.
The second section is made up of three character portraits and within each is the author’s description of the situation followed by a transcript of the person nearing the end of their life talking or a transcript of a family member telling their side of the story. The first-person narrative was very powerful, it read literally like a transcript and therefore I could hear the voices as I read. The first portrait is of a mother and wife, Paula, who has terminal cancer. The message of mindful living and the importance of demonstrating the love you have shone through as well as the undercurrent of how much energy this takes, even for a determined woman.
I especially loved the second portrait. I think that all too often we as a society just see the outside of older generations and don’t take into account the incredible life stories that lie behind old age. So, I loved how the author said that she wanted to give a voice to the history of Senhor João and Senhora Maria. They made me think of my own grandmother, who had so many stories to tell of the past and how much richer I feel for them. It made me think of some of the old people in the old peoples home nearby, who don’t have anyone to tell their stories to.
I really did identify on a personal level, many points continued to remind me of my grandparents; the fear of losing your senses when you have lived such an active life, the fear of losing those important memories, which define you. But also, how they sat and listened at the family gathering, observing all the loud muddled voices of the different generations and taking joy and strength from them.
I didn’t know anything about the colonialization of Angola by the Portugues, which has a part to play in this portrait, so this gave me an opportunity to research. I keep saying this in my reviews, but I was reminded yet again how narrow my awareness is of the world. Again, the impact of colonialization then and now astounds me. Sometimes we humans get things so horribly wrong time and time again.
The third portrait was of two sisters and their dying father. The complexity of the relationships between the three made very interesting reading. Elisa and Sara were so honest in their reflection, talking about their emotions and the complicated, fierce love they had for their father. There were indeed so many emotions packed really carefully into a short space; being an outsider, not feeling enough, the need to prove your worth, the need to hold onto control when death and grief can’t be controlled…wow!
There is a point where family and friends are talking about the man the father was before his decline in health. Each person has something really heartfelt to say and we get the impression that this man lived a rich life and had a positive impact on many people. It really made me think about what people might say about me one day, what I hope they will see in me and remember. That old chestnut of, ‘What is my purpose here on this earth?’ crept in and took hold for some time.
I also thought the portrayal of the aftermath beyond the father’s funeral gave an honest insight that is often not explored; how the real feelings of loss often come later in the everyday, how witnessing death can cause much trauma further down the line.
The final section is a summoning up of the author’s thoughts at the end of her journey. I found myself fully agreeing with her. Death fundamentally changes you. Be it by giving you insight, shifting your perspective on what being alive means or by leaving your heart wide open, allowing you to consciously see and listen to the journeys of fellow human beings.
So, to wrap it all up, this book has helped me process my own grief in a very positive way. I can’t say I love it because of the subject matter itself but to me Now and at the Hour of Our Death will always be an important book.