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July 29, 2009

Not Yet; a Memoir of Living and Almost Dying

Judith Maclean Miller

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A book review by Judith Maclean Miller

Wayson Choy. Not Yet; a Memoir of Living and Almost Dying, Doubleday, 2009,  ISBN 978-0-385-66310-6 195p.

This is a beautiful book. It sits happily in the hand, with a lovely textured cover and beautiful paper. Designed by CS Richardson, the book is a satisfying artifact. The typeface is Centaur, a modern type, based on letters cut by Nicolas Jenson, a fifteenth century printer. Its quiet elegance suits the book.

The physical presence of this memoir is the first encounter with it, but reading it continues the pleasure. Wayson Choy’s prose style is well-suited to memoir, to creative non-fiction. He tells a story well, giving it the pacing and vitality sometimes missing in prose work.

Wayson’s tone is frank, self-deprecatory, often amusing, as when he describes his way of dealing with his annoying, multiple, allergies: “Yes, my room was dusty, but only if I attempted to sweep did I suffer. I vacuumed every five years, religiously. I avoided certain kinds of shellfish, especially the kinds that I didn’t like.”

It’s a recognizable strategy, and it evokes a sympathetic grunt of recognition from lots of readers.

This is a story precipitated by almost dying, but it is more about living than about dying. Wayson faces the possibility that he is no longer alive and accepts it—then he gets on with making his way back from a very serious allergy/heart attack. He admits to being a difficult, irascible patient. He acknowledges the many defeats as he works to regain motor movement, strength and control.

All through the difficulties and defeats, though, are small triumphs—and people. Wayson remembers all the people who have been part of his life, recognizing their love for him, which he rests against in this terribly difficult time.

An irritated doctor comes into Wayson’s hospital room to complain that the waiting room is packed with visitors wanting to see him—and they all swear they’re family even though none of them bear the slightest physical resemblance to Wayson. Although he says nothing about it, clearly this love comes back to Wayson when he needs it because he has given so generously to other people in a myriad of ways.

This is a book for anyone who has been over-whelmed by a messy room, by illness, by physical limitations of any kind. It is also for anyone who has ever loved a person, a place, an object, an animal . . . It is dedicated “to all who understand love has no rules.”

The second part of the book records an experience with ghosts. A friend tells Wayson that he has brought two back with him from his time close to death and that they must be freed to return to the place where they belong. Wayson is skeptical but fascinated, willing to explore this mystery, remembering the “signs” which his elders in Vancouver’s Chinese community taught him to watch for.

This is a book of many treasures, where perhaps the greatest is the writing itself. Wayson seems to write effortlessly, in accessible, balanced, quietly melodic language. We get the strong sense that this is the voice he hears in his head as he notices and reflects on his world and himself. It is no small feat to inscribe that voice, to get it onto the page, to share it.

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