Book Review: The Last Leaves Falling
by Sarah Benwell
Simon & Schuster, 2015
Sarah Benwell’s debut Young Adult novel The Last Leaves Falling focuses on seventeen-year-old Abe Sora, who’s been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and has very little time left to live. Through his perspective, we look back at the slow progress his disease, beginning with its relatively sudden onset:
At first, they thought that the aching in my legs was the flu and nothing more, but the weakness grew, and one day, out on the baseball field, I fell. My legs stopped working. The tests seemed to go on forever. Nobody knew what was wrong with me. They probed and prodded and asked a million questions. Every theory proved wrong, every disease and condition crossed off the list, until finally they found an answer.
Abe lives with his mother in Kyoto, and until his worsening condition forces him to leave high school (Benwell portrays the institution’s bureaucratic cowardice with an understated acid that’s totally at odds with the benign tone of the rest of the novel, although all the more effective for being so), he’s a normal teenager: he’s a big baseball, he yearns for friendship, and he spends a lot of his time online. But as the stares of his classmates grow increasingly open, and as the adults around him grow frustratingly epigrammatic (his doctor Kobayashi at one point intones, “What matters is not how much time you have, but how you use it”), Abe begins to take greater solace in the disembodied but nonjudgmental friendships he’s forming in online chatrooms, especially with Mai and Kaito, who agree to meet him in real life and do their best to brighten up his final days.
Those days are chronicled by Benwell with a straightforward, almost hard edge. Abe regularly reminds himself that a warrior “must always be mindful of death,” but there’s very little that’s cinematic about his own deterioration, and even before he faces it in himself, Doctor Kobayashi allows him access to a palliative care ward where he can face it in others, including one harrowing little moment when he’s talking to a patient in the final stages of a neurological condition much like his own:
“Are you all right?” The words come out in one rushed breath, but the question is polite and safe, and all he has to do is blink yes, or nod, and we are both home free.
But he does not nod. He looks at me, and looks, and then his eyes take on a fierceness that I’ve never seen before, and his jaw works in wild desperate circles as he tries to gain control, force unused muscles to make words, and his breathing gets faster, louder, desperate. For a moment I think maybe I should call for help. And then, in one harsh breath he wheezes out his answer, emptying his lungs:
Even so, the studied lack of over-sentimentality detracts not at all from the simple, elegant beauty of the story Benwell tells in these pages. The entire genre of YA has in recent years followed the example of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and decamped en masse for the ICU unit, with main and secondary characters dropping like flies from every terminal illness in the PDR. This is deplorably lazy, of course, and it might prompt a touch of suspicion in approaching a book like The Last Leaves Falling. But Benwell saves her hackneyed premise by means of her heartfelt performance – this is a moving and ultimately uplifting debut.