What Are You Going Through is at its best in this investigation of finality, asking questions about the will to survive, its value and its cost. After initially refusing treatment because of the side effects, the unnamed friend experiences a feeling of anticlimax when she briefly believes that it has worked. The complex intimacy between the women, as they spend time together in a holiday house and prepare for the end, is powerfully affecting. Yet despite the fact that What Are You Going Through is structured as a novel-in-chorus, incorporating many people’s stories into the narrative through their conversations with the narrator, the two central characters are the only ones drawn with complexity.
It’s a mark of Nunez’s wisdom that she has created something witty and hopeful from characters who are surveying the closing stages of life. “There’s a certain kind of happiness, my friend said, that is open only to young children . . . after a certain age, that feeling — that pure bliss — doesn’t happen, it can’t happen, because you never want just one thing any more.” Once this fact has been acknowledged, Nunez hints at a wonderful freedom, a freedom upon which her novel soars.
The reference to Scheherazade, the narrator of One Thousand and One Nights is, like every reference in these pages, loaded with significance: Scheherazade seduced the king with stories in order to stop him from killing her. But none of the stories in What Are You Going Through are as compelling as the suave and sinuous way in which they are told. The narrative control of this novel simply dazzles. Nunez moves into and out of first and third person, past and present tense and direct and indirect speech as though she were shifting the gears of a Ferrari at full speed on a race track.
The novel constantly balances moral dilemmas; is it the right thing to assist a friend with such an end-of-life wish? But although it encompasses so much sorrow, it is also a true pleasure to read, a novel bursting with wit, warmth, and human empathy.
Her writing is taut, clear and insightful. The title of the book, cribbed from the French philosopher Simone Weil, who wrote ‘Quel est donc ton tourment?” is a reminder that somebody somewhere is always going through something, and that the key to living well is to take the time not just to ask the question, but to listen to the answer.
At several moments in the novel, the narrator recounts the details of a lurid paperback thriller she has read to provide her friend with distraction. The drama here is of a more muted order. Yet What Are You Going Through hardly lacks for vitality. Nunez has managed to turn life into art without processing the raw ingredients into oblivion.
At the heart of the novel is the golden rule, do unto others... “The real reason I had agreed to help my friend,” the narrator admits, “was that I knew that, in her place, I would have hoped to be able to do exactly what she now wanted to do.” She comes to understand that she will of course end up in her friend’s “place”, and that “this was all a kind of rehearsal, that my friend was showing me the way”. We all will need a friend.
Nunez's last novel, The Friend, won the 2018 National Book Award. This is narrated by an unnamed woman, a writer, who visits a friend with terminal cancer. Her friend wants to end her life on her own terms-and needs the narrator's help. A short (208pp), sparsely written but profound novel about the need for human connection in these divided times, which explores how far one person can really understand another. The title is taken from French philosopher Simone Weil: "The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say, 'What are you going through?'"