“[I]t’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck. Like, in cancer books, the cancer person starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy. But in ‘AIA’, Anna decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic, so she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera.”
This is Hazel Grace Lancaster’s summary of her favourite book, An Imperial Affliction. Hazel is the narrator of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and she has terminal cancer.
Although she has survived its colonisation of both her thyroid and lungs, Hazel would scoff at the title ‘heroine’. “Cancer kids are essentially side effects of the relentless mutation that made the diversity of life on earth possible”, she deadpans, “…Cancer is … a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.”
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes this book so irresistible. It had been recommended to me time and time again, but even so it caught me unawares. Perhaps it was the black-humoured fatalism with which the main characters treat their diagnoses. Maybe it was their eye-rolling at the seemingly ubiquitous cheesy sentiment of ‘cancer heroism’. Or it might have been the sheer normality of the teenage voices living through an entirely abnormal adolescent experience.
In truth, I suspect it was all three. But what really remained with me was the extraordinary dynamic between Hazel, her about-to-be-blind friend Isaac from Support Group, and Augustus Waters, the osteosarcoma survivor with whom she falls in love.
All three of them would hate this categorisation by diagnosis. ‘[I don’t want] your cancer story. [I want] your story….” Gus presses Hazel after their first meeting, “Don’t tell me you’re one of those people who becomes your disease… Cancer is in the growth business, right? The taking-people-over business. But surely you haven’t let it succeed prematurely.”
Writing teenage relationships isn’t easy at the best of times. Overlay the intensity of first love with looming mortality and there is a real danger of heavy-handed mawkishness. The Fault in Our Stars takes this threat and flips it on its head. It is laugh out loud funny, but beneath the humour lie strong and utterly believable bonds of friendship. Who but Augustus Waters would address a blind man’s heartbreak by re-enacting Counterinsurgence 2: The Price of Dawn with a dozen eggs and an ex-girlfriend’s car?
And then there’s the love story itself, which will break your heart. For teenagers, romantic relationships are often insecure while death remains largely irrelevant. For Hazel and Gus, it's very different. The result is intensified emotion that their wise-cracking banter never allows to cloy. There is an honesty here that is pitch-perfect, and their refusal to be sentimental means that any ‘overdone’ moments are genuinely moving.
This is not a ‘cancer book’, it is so much more than that. It is a story that will make you laugh and cry from start to finish. Don’t miss it.