I typically read on the kindle or get an audiobook, but Between Two Kingdoms is the first paperback I got in a long time. I fell totally in love with Suleika Jaouad, her story, and the beautiful recounting of it. Jaouad’s story begins when she graduates, moves to Paris to begin her real world job, and falls in love. All this while harbouring a painful itch that develops into chronic exhaustion that ultimately lands her in a hospital where she is diagnosed with leukemia. She chronicles her journey through the three and a half years of chemo, a clinical trial, and a bone marrow transplant. Jaouad keeps things extremely real, talking about the breakdown of her relationship, the state of her family, and her own insecurities throughout and after the cancer. It isn’t pretty at all, and harrowing at times so that I felt the need to pause reading. Yet this vulnerable exposure is what I appreciate most- this is what the best memoirs are made of.
When Jaouad is told that she is out of the woods, she realizes that life after cancer wasn’t going to be anything like life before cancer. She struggles to find her footing in a world outside the hospital, and that struggle leads her and her rescue dog, Oscar on a 15,000 mile road trip across the United States. Here she meets people who have some heartwarming and some heartbreaking stories to share. The second half of the book serves as a travelouge for some of the often overlooked parts of the country. Jaouad’s Ted Talk titled “What almost dying taught me about living” is a nice summary of the book and definitely worth watching.
The first time I realized I was going to love this book was around 100 pages in. Jaouad quotes Jeanette Winterson from Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal with “That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.”. It’s one of the coolest things to discover that there is another person that likes the same authors, and quotes as you. Another aspect I found delightful- if I may say that about a cancer surviorship story- is that every now and then Jaouad has a way to cleverly describe scenes, predicaments and feelings, in a string of words that are a treat to read. For the most part, this book has a special place in my heart because it made me feel less alone. Even though it is impossible to share her specific experiences the quest to figure out who we want to be in a constantly changing world is universal.
From start to finish I kept wishing I could inhale the words on the page. Luckily I’m not alone because, I know Nilanjana Roy feels similarly about ingesting books she loves. I can’t remembder wanting to consume the words of any other book, so I suspect it’s because this was a paperback copy I could feel in my hands and hear the sounds of the turning paper pages. Maybe I would have loved the book on my Kindle too, but I know the physical copy elevated my reading experience.
Here are some of my highlights.
- “He has a theory: When we travel, we actually take three trips. There’s the first trip of preparation and anticipation, packing and daydreaming. There’s the trip you’re actually on. And then, there’s the trip you remember. “The key is to try to keep all three as separate as possible,” he says. “The key is to be present wherever you are right now.” This advice, more than any, stays with me.”
- “Grief is a ghost that visits without warning. It comes in the night and rips you from your sleep. It fills your chest with shards of glass. It interrupts you mid-laugh when you’re at a party, chastising you that, just for a moment, you’ve forgotten. It haunts you until it becomes a part of you, shadowing you breath for breath.”
- “Forgiveness is a refusal to armor your own heart—a refusal to live in a constricted heart,” he said, seemingly as much to himself as to me. “Living with that openness means feeling pain. It’s not pretty, but the alternative is feeling nothing at all.”
- “They taught me that, when life brings you to the floor, there is a choice: You can allow the worst thing that’s ever happened to you to hijack your remaining days, or you can claw your way back into motion.”
- “The power of story is to heal and to sustain. And if we are brave enough to tell our own story, we realize we’re not alone, again and again.”