Holding Tight, Letting Go by Sarah Hughes review – lessons of a life well lived | Trials

Jit’s not the book Sarah Hughes wanted it to be. Aged just 46, the journalist learned that her recently treated breast cancer had not only returned and spread, but had become incurable. She continued to defy the statistics and live with it for over two years (the median is just 11 months), but that wasn’t long enough to complete the job she originally described. And yet, while clearly nothing compared to some of the other unfinished endeavors of his life – most poignantly, raising his two children – missing chapters such as Financial Advice from an Unrepentant Gambler and The Secret Lives of Catholic Saints are also fully overshadowed by what she did succeed in achieving.

Here is a volume full of wisdom and wit, of grace and frivolity. Nor is it a book about cancer. Yes, it’s basically about living with the disease, even dying from it – a neglected topic, she observes – but these memory essays also involve food and haute couture, bonkbusters and box sets. Likewise, although she allows grief, her voice and ideas – her pure momentum – make them soar.

“From an early age I was obsessed with death,” begins his opening essay, This is my funeral and I’ll cry if I want to. As an angry child, she was prone to running away and indulging in melodramatic fantasies about how her family would be devastated if she died. Fueled by reading Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe, these imaginings later expanded to Gothic funerals, and as an adult she would wonder who among her inner circle might die young. Then “death, the dancer I had tempted and taunted all my life, finally responded to my invitation and knocked on my door.”

It’s a striking image – sad, angry and with an otherworldly tinge that somehow evokes the Catholicism of her childhood, a faith she has kept. Those same traits stand out through a powerful essay about the stillbirth of her third child and the miscarriage of a fourth the following year. She came to think of the couple as her “shadow children,” she explains.

Her writing never fails to comfort, but she does so without cushioning the jagged edges of reality. In Scars, she gives in to an atavistic need to “testify,” standing in front of a mirror late at night and examining her changed body. Among her “trophies” are faint lines that testify to an adolescent flirtation with female circumcision during a miserable stint in private school. Some of her classmates were much more serious about it, and she admits to being ashamed for owning their coping mechanisms instead of trying to help. Sometimes, however, it’s acceptance that overwhelms her when she sees those scars. As she notes, “Teenagers need to feel things strongly.”

Throughout, she is invigoratingly frank. Upon learning that her cancer had metastasized, for example, her first thought was that she did not want to leave her husband and children. His second? That she may never know how game of thrones ends – the books, not the TV adaptation she blogged about, earning her the nickname “Lady Sarah” among her many fans.

It’s books she turns to again and again in difficult times – invariably titles that a less expansive reader might be snobbish about. As a teenager, for example, she found Virginia Andrews epiphanic. Later, Jackie Collins taught him that you can only get out of life what you put into it. And when her illness was first diagnosed, it was Jilly Cooper she sought out.

Interspersed with these nine essays are chapters by friends, including professional writers, that offer insight into Hughes at different stages of life – at boarding school and the University of St Andrews; started as a journalist in Manchester before moving to London and contributing extensively to both this newspaper and the Guardian; fall in love and live in New York. If they inevitably sound like praise, sometimes ringing strangely with the liveliness of his prose, they show how much those close to him took his words to heart – words whose message is summed up by the title of the book: Hold tight, let go.

It is a book about letting go, and in this it is as much for the dying as for those who love them. But it’s also about clinging to every moment of pleasure, even when those moments only last in memory. It is Hughes’ knack for doing just that that shines most in these pages.

Hold tight, let go by Sarah Hughes is published by Blink (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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