Title: The Last Leaves Falling (2015)
Author: Sarah Benwell
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Extent: 368 pages
Release Date: May 5, 2015
And these are they. My final moments. They say a warrior must always be mindful of death, but I never imagined that it would find me like this…
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.
The Last Leaves Falling is an emotionally difficult read. Sora, the main character, has ALS, a disorder that was popularised by the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014. If you’re not familiar with it, ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which results in your muscles decreasing in size and weakening. At first you can’t move your legs, then your fingers, then your whole body, and eventually, you will have difficulty speaking, swallowing and breathing.
I knew this going in, and yet I wasn’t prepared by how absolutely terrifying—and utterly sad—the situation is for Sora and the people in his life. This book deals with the physical suffering, but more than that, it’s the emotional suffering that takes the cake.
Sora experiences pretty much the full spectrum here: anger that this disorder has ‘chosen’ him, loneliness because there’s no one he can really talk to, hopelessness that his body is betraying him, shame that he could no longer do simple things, sadness for the people that he’s leaving behind, fear of the death that’s looming in every corner. This was very easily the biggest strength of Benwell’s work: it’s a raw and unflinching portrayal of someone who suffers from a terminal illness.
My main problem in this book lies in the characterisation of the supporting characters. Sora and his mother were developed very, very well, but not so with his friends Mai and Kaito. These two felt a bit like caricatures to me—they felt very much one-dimensional and tacked on because, well, the main character needs sidekicks. For a book that highlights friendship in the blurb, it didn’t deliver on that front and instead was much more stronger in developing the relationship between Sora and his mother.
Benwell’s writing style is very straightforward, full of simple words, short sentences and sparse paragraphs. Some has called it beautiful and moving, but personally, it could have been more fleshed out. As it was, it felt a bit like a translation to me at parts—a little bit too plain, a little bit too ineffective in creating impact.
I didn’t really see the ending coming. I don’t know enough about Japanese law to comment on the legality of it, so all I can say is I can’t imagine how absolutely devastating it was to the people in his life. I also think that it was a little bit rushed—I wish Benwell has prepared us a little bit more and given us more time to deal with it.
Overall, The Last Leaves Falling was a bit of a depressing read, dealing with very dark, very difficult issues. Emotional as it may be, however, there were a couple of things that I felt could be improved to make this more impactful, more memorable.
Have you read this book yet? What do you think? 🙂