Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir begins almost at the end of her story. She is standing in a chapel. The chapel belongs to the hospital her brother Matty was taken to when he was knocked down by a car aged sixteen. Rentzenbrink recalls her seventeen-year-old self ‘kneeling in front of the altar all those years ago’:
She thought she was living the worst night of her life, but I know that far worse was to come. The thing she feared was that her brother would die, but I know now it would have been better for everyone if he had. It would have been better for everyone if, as she knelt here, begging for his life, his heart had ceased to beat, if the LED lines on the monitors had stopped registering his heartbeat, if death had been pronounced, accepted, dealt with. It would have been so much better if Matty had died then.
Rentzenbrink then goes back to before the accident and introduces us to her family. Her parents owned the Bell and Crown pub in Snaith, in what was then Humberside (it’s now the East Riding of Yorkshire). Cathy and Matty ‘were generally thought to be a bit too clever for our own good’; she loved reading, he was the ‘delight of the ladies’ darts team’. Their father was ‘Irish, covered in tattoos, sang in the street and went to the pub a lot’, their mother was a civil servant, going to work in a suit.
On the night of the accident, Cathy and Matty both did their usual shift in the pub and then went to the disco at the Rainbow, a snooker club about a mile outside of Snaith. Later Cathy was offered a lift back by one of the locals. She asked Matty if he wanted to come with them:
‘No,’ he said grinning, ‘I’ll hang around here. I might get lucky.’
And I threw him a half-smile, an eyebrow raise, a ‘what an arrogant fucker you are’ head-tilt, and I walked out of the Rainbow and into the car.
The next time I saw Matty he was lying in the road. And he never, in any sense of the expression, got lucky again.
The rest of the book deals with the aftermath of Matty’s accident – the eight years he spent in a persistent vegetative state and the impact that had on Rentzenbrink and her family.
There are several things which are really impressive about this book: it’s honesty, it’s humour and the creation of the voice of seventeen-year-old Cathy.
As the first quotation in this review shows, Rentzenbrink doesn’t shy away from stating her feelings about the situation. Towards the end of the book, she talks about how writing Matty’s story began with a list of all the things she felt guilty about. She includes the list which I’m sure many people who might not have dealt with Rentzenbrink’s unusual situation but have dealt with caring for a relative with a long term debilitating illness will recognise and take comfort in.
Much of the humour comes from moments recounted before the accident and helps to show Matty’s personality in particular. My favourite line though comes four days after the accident when the nurse tells Matty they’re going to give him a bath. Cathy thinks he wouldn’t mind their mum being involved, considering the circumstances but:
I could imagine the eyebrow-raise and the hard stare, could hear him say, ‘You can fuck off with the cock washing, sis.’
Rentzenbrink tells the story in first person. When I interviewed her at Urmston Bookshop, she told me that this didn’t happen until a very late draft and that she’d begun by writing the story in third person. I can understand why you’d want to tell a story this emotional at a distance but the decision to change to first person pays off. We see the story through Cathy’s eyes and empathise with her. This also means that the emotional impact of the story is significant; you will need a box of tissues to hand. I made it as far as page 12 before I started crying and there were two further points where I had to put the book down while I sobbed. Despite that, I still read it in an afternoon: it’s both heart breaking and compelling.
The Last Act of Love is a deeply personal and unique story that deals with universal issues around grief. It’s a beautiful tribute to Matty and marks Rentzenbrink as a writer to watch. If you only read one memoir this year, make it this one.
Thanks to Picador for the review copy.