I put off reading Undying because I was afraid my usually stone-cold cynical heart could not cope with it. From the queasy raw intensity of his genre defying masterpiece Under the Skin, to the sweeping Victorian expanse of The Crimson Petal and the White, something about Michel Faber’s writing grabs me utterly. His directness of tone and immersive descriptions are a heady combination – and one that made his first slim volume of poetry slightly frightening. Undying chronicles Faber’s attempts to process the six-year battle with cancer; death; and absence of, his beloved wife of 26 years Eva.
How can you say goodbye to the love of your life? How can you reconcile the wonder of finding your perfect partner with the horror of losing them in slow motion? These poems are tender and devastating – there is a vulnerability and a rawness to them that shredded my heart. Read them – and then hug your lover close, call your mother, grab your pet and give it a big snuggle – be thankful you are alive. Faber doesn’t shirk from depicting the ravages of cancer, but even the darkest of these poems are suffused with hope and love. For me, the darkest poems come after Eva has passed, as Faber struggles to adjust to a world without her in it.
All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,
is mention, to whoever cares to listen,
that a woman once existed, who was kind
and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget
how the world was altered, beyond recognition,
when we met.
Above all, these are love poems, in the deepest truest sense of the word. I read my first Michel Faber novel 17 years ago, and read all his fiction published since. I never really thought about his private life until I heard his announcement that he would not write any more fiction after Eva’s death and the publication of The Book of Strange New Things. After reading Undying, I feel I know Eva – that she was extraordinary, and that the world is a poorer place in her absence. These poems are more than a searing testimony of grief, they are a celebration of the impact we can make in life, the death-defying ripples of a life lived in kindness:
You worked covertly, nurturing by stealth.
You lifted people up, nudged them to transcend
You’re dead. I know. And it is not for me
to show you death is not the end.
But you left lucencies of grace secreted in the world,