*Many thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada for providing this review copy to me.*
Title: The Last Leaves Falling
Author: Sarah Benwell
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: May 5th 2015
Synopsis from Goodreads:
Japanese teenager, Sora, is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Lonely and isolated, Sora turns to the ancient wisdom of the samurai for guidance and comfort. But he also finds hope in the present; through the internet he finds friends that see him, not just his illness. This is a story of friendship and acceptance, and testing strength in an uncertain future.
I was so excited to read Benwell’s debut novel, so thank you once again to Simon & Schuster Canada for providing this lovely book. I was so completely caught by this gorgeous cover right off the bat. I knew I had to read this book before I’d even read what it was about. This cover says so much about this story, sharing just as much about the plot as the synopsis above. I love that this cover reflects the text’s central feeling of longing for freedom, but also share the elements of serenity that come in the story’s quite and more sombre moments.
Be prepared though, this book is absolutely devastating. If you’ve ever known someone who suffers from ALS or you’ve read about this horrible illness, you can imaging what a struggle this story shares. Sora is dying. This we know right from the story’s outset. There are no happy endings, but what I loved in this story is that Sora finds happiness and peace in the little things. His illness inspires him to reach out to others and to help them realize their dreams. Sora doesn’t want to be pitied and so he hides away from the world. It is only when he reaches out to others does he become a catalyst for change.
Sora is an immensely motivating characters. He carries the shadow of death on his shoulders, yet he is able to act as a rock for everyone in his life. He is such a strong character that it is all the more heartbreaking when he really realizes his inevitable end. We see him fight with anger and frustration. He cannot overcome the destruction of his body over time. The friends he meets online become his companions right until the end of his life. Although they face struggles of their own, they are completely selfless. They learn from and are inspired by Sora, but they give him the world.
My only criticism is that the story felt a little rushed. We do meet Sora post-diagnosis, but his disease progresses at an incredibly quick rate. From my own understanding of ALS, and correct me if I’m wrong, patients generally face years of illness as their bodies shut down over the course of time. I felt like Sora’s story was told over the course of a few months. Perhaps there are more accelerated forms that I am unaware of, but he is taking medication to help slow the disease’s progression.
Despite this rushed feeling, the book had be blubbering and bawling. I was reading it on my lunch break at work and I had to put it away to finish later in the evening so that I wouldn’t have a complete and very public breakdown. I think this is a wonderful story for young adults looking to understand illness or disability. Sora openly discusses his struggles and he wants the world to know what it’s like, not so that they can pity him, but so that they can understand what they have with the gift of life and not squander their loves and talents. I hope you’ll read this lovely debut novel.