What is a Good Death?

Marianne Brooker, Intervals

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 200pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781804270837

reviewed by Beatrice Tridimas

What is a good death? Does it depend on how we die, or where we end up next?
In her first book, Intervals, Marianne Brooker tells the story of her mother’s decision to stop eating and drinking after being diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. But this is not simply a personal memoir of illness and death. From its very first pages, where Brooker deciphers the transformative power of imagining a better life from a children’s story about a toy rabbit, Intervals is a philosophical rumination on the politics of death and dying.

As she tracks her mother’s illness, Brooker unpacks the socio-economic environment she is dying in — austerity and cuts to welfare support, the surging costs of funerals, the lack of access to assisted dying. Situating her memoir in a political sphere, Brooker offers the reader a new or rarely discussed perspective on death as a socio-political issue, building on a body of evidence — newspaper reports, academic texts and theoretical writing — which she knits together with her own narrative, in prose that is engaging yet lyrical.

Brooker draws on feminist philosophy to help the reader understand that her mother’s decision to refuse food and drink cannot be separated from the situation in which she is living: her mother’s choice is an attempt to reclaim agency, not so much over life, as over the social conditions in which she is dying. A dignified death comes at a price, Brooker argues — both literally, as the average cost of a funeral stretches beyond £9,000 and figuratively, as choosing death might be the only form of agency a person can exercise at the end of their life.

At the same time, tries to process her grief by dissecting her mother’s choice and the environment in which she died. She had take out a new credit card and ask Brooker for money to make up for the disability benefit she gave up in exchange for daily care visits and a mobility scooter — a ‘rented freedom’ she will have to return and that will cost her more in monthly instalments than if she had bought it outright.

Where anecdote normally acts to illustrate theory, Brooker does the opposite, using ideas to make sense of her personal experiences and thereby turning memoir into polemic. She tries to understand her own role in the story too — as a daughter, carer, death midwife, turning to scholars and psychotherapists to make sense of her experience and universalise it.

At times the scholarly allusions do little to further Brooker’s argument. Intervals comes into its own as the personal narrative takes over and the memoir mode predominates; Brooker recounting how her mother endures a regime of no food or water, wetting her dry mouth with an aerosol spray, and recalling their last walk together.

I imagined the tiny droplets of water and steam in the shower somehow sustaining her life at the barest minimum, keeping her from the edge but not nourishing her more fully. [. . .] But there was no clear line between living and dying. The two conspired against us, pushing my mum further into the no man’s land between them.

As Brooker goes on to discuss what dignity in death is and the ethics of assisted dying, she isn’t so bold as to offer solutions — there is no preferred system for assisted dying, she concludes — but she does urge the reader to consider what other systems could make death fairer. Does state care work, or is it, too, steeped in inequalities with some having better access than others?

Towards the end of the book, Brooker’s writing becomes more inward-looking and sentimental as she admits to seeking a reason for her mother’s death and repeatedly re-watches a campaign YouTube video her mother once posted. She likens writing to care — the book becoming her final, surrogate act of protection — in that it is an ongoing, continuous act. And yet, what the reader takes away from the book isn’t so much the author’s personal loss but a desire for justice. It is only through understanding the political context of her mother’s death that we understand it fully, and vice versa.

It’s not about changing one law, Brooker writes, but about transforming the whole system of welfare and benefits that can determine how ‘good’ someone’s death really is. Intervals doesn’t offer any catharsis, but it does achieve what it sets out to do — enlightening the reader on the political reality of death, and challenging us to create a society where we can all die better deaths.

Beatrice Tridimas is a journalist covering tech, climate change and social inequality at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.