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Carmen Amoraga: La vida era eso [Such Was Life]

Giuliana di Benedetto, an Argentinian of Italian origin, is married to William Kesselman, an Argentinian Jew. The couple live in Spain and have two daughters, aged five and ten. At the beginning of the book, William is dying of cancer. Indeed, he has very little time left to live. William is very keen on computers and social media and, indeed, seems to spend much of his free time on line. Before his death, he writes on his Facebook page, with the help of Giuliana, essentially announcing his death. He writes for the next few days with Giuliana’s help. We do not see his death but we soon learn that the William who is writing is, in fact, Giuliana, writing after his death but in his name.

Of course, Giuliana is devastated by his death, particularly with two daughters to bring up. However, it is modern technology that helps her carry on. She starts by phoning his mobile. Of course there is no reply. She continues to write on his Facebook page. Then she gets her own Facebook page and writes to him through that. Then she joins a support group of others who have lost a loved one from cancer or who have a loved one who is dying of cancer. Initially, she struggles with it, not wanting to accept that he is dead and not wanting to turn to others for help. The group itself is not online but a physical group in a meeting room but the meetings are announced by using Whatsapp (the first use I have seen of Whatsapp in a novel. It is also the first time I have ever seen anyone – in a novel or elsewhere – say that they were grateful to Mark Zuckerberg). Of course, the group discusses many issues, such as the idea that the fear one feels in these circumstances is just a feeling, not a certainty.

Naturally, she reminisces about William – about how they were living in Argentina and suddenly, at very short notice, moved to Spain, about the way he was a reader and computer user, while she preferred TV soap operas and, inevitably, how he used his computer and social media (not Twitter, preferring Facebook) and tried to explain to her the advantages of the Internet. But she also remembers the not so good, such as how for periods, they would only talk about the children, work and the house and not about anything else. She remembers their rows and how, on occasions, she planned for a life without him. She also finds out that William has contacted others (the children’s headmistress, his boss) to contact her after around there months, if she has not contacted them. She is, at least initially, very annoyed about this, as she feels he is controlling her, even after his death.

Outside the group, she also struggles. She feels that it is the children that are the adults, as they seem to take the loss of their father more in their stride than she does. Her elder daughter does, however, remind her that she is not the only to feel grief at William’s death and that her daughters do feel it, even if they do not show it as much as she does. And, as people do in this situation, she wonders how long this grief she feels will last. (An old woman she meets, whose husband died thirty years ago, says to her Tu pena no tendrá fin [Your pain will never end]). Her main contact is María, a woman whose husband, Antonio, has cancer and is dying and who, eventually, dies. Giuliana learns, after Antonio’s death, that María had always loved someone else and is now feeling very guilty despite the fact she has been, in her own eyes, a good wife and mother to their children. Giuliana also struggles with her memories of her first boyfriend, whom she tries to contact.

The novel is divided into five sections, corresponding to the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance and, of course, Giuliana goes through these five stages. Obviously, losing someone to cancer, particularly when they are still relatively young (William was forty-eight when he died), is devastating and brings forth a whole host of mixed mentions and feelings. However, is it the stuff of great literature? Amoraga avoids falling into the trap of being mawkish and trite but her story is still relatively conventional, not least as she chooses to follow the standard five stages of grief approach. Yes, she throws in social media – Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and, even Spotify all make an appearance but this does not make for a work of originality. This novel won the Nadal Prize in 2014, one of the top Spanish literary prizes and, I must say, I am baffled as to why. It is interesting, well-written and, of course, will be very poignant for those have been through something similar, but in no way is it great literature.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Destino
No English translation