Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise by Matthew Crow

One trend in young adult literature is novels about teens with cancer, the most famous recently being John Green's, The Fault in Our Stars. But other recent offerings, such as Anthem for Jackson Dawes, are better written and more appealing. The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise is a novel that will touch readers deeply, giving them new perspectives on those who cope with serious illness.

Fifteen year old Francis Wootton is part of a family with a story. He lives with his mother who is a teacher. There was a time when Francis's mom and dad lived together but his dad began to leave, eventually for longer and longer periods of time until he simply never returned. He has an older brother Chris, who is gay and who worked as a graphic designer. Chris lives in a flat with several roommates including Fiona whom Francis adores. Francis's twin sister Emma, died after being run over by a truck when she was very young.

Francis's health problems first began with headaches. Thinking the problem was his eyes, his mother took him to the optician who discounted this possibility. Then came the nose bleeds - great big ones with lots of blood. Francis began feeling unwell and his mother tried to diagnose him herself thinking first he had the flu, then allergies, then depression and then anemia. But when Francis passes out at school, he ends up in hospital with blood and bone-marrow tests and a diagnosis of cancer. For the first time he faces the possibility of death.
"One of the first things we learn is that people die. Then we start to learn why. Old age is the starting point. It's more or less palatable, something everybody can just about stomach; the Soup of the Day to mortality's grand buffet...
Then we learn more. Guns. War. Disease.
The big words. The bad words. The words that never end well."
Francis's feelings about having leukemia are mixed; he worries that people will remember his death by cancer and not his life, he's overwhelmed by the thought of having cancer, but he's also excited "that things were going to change, to become different and focused. And on me, which was a plus."

Francis moves into a specialist unit that treats teens with cancer where he meets the head nurse, Jackie and his carers, Marc and Amy. At first there are three patients in the unit, Francis and another boy named Paul, as well as a girl, Kelly. Francis has trouble relating to either of them, describing Paul as "pasta" and "Everyone thought they loved him because they had never been forced to experience the true blandness of him on his own. Paul was surface all the way to the bone." Kelly is similar to Paul, little substance on the inside, a girl who wears makeup in the unit to whom outward appearances matter most.  Although Francis's brother Chris encourages him to make friends with Paul and Kelly, Francis cannot relate to either and feels alone.

On Francis's fourth day in the unit, Amber Spratt arrives with her oddball, ecofriendly mother  Colette and her younger sister, Olivia. From the beginning Amber is eccentric, like her mother, and very outspoken. In group therapy with Christian their soft-spoken counselor, Amber is openly hostile towards Kelly who accuses Amber of being afraid of dying just like the rest of them. After this confrontation the unit is divided into two groups, Paul and Kelly in one and Amber and Francis in another.

Francis and Amber begin to form a friendship that eventually turns romantic with the two sharing their first kiss and leading Francis to wonder if Amber is now his girlfriend. As treatment progresses, Francis, like the others, has good and bad days. "The whole world would stop mattering to us. All we had to occupy ourselves with was firstly, trying not to throw up, and then perversely, trying with all our might to throw up,..."

When Francis begins loosing his hair, his brother Chris comes to the unit to shave Francis's head. In a show of solidarity with his brother, Chris wants Francis to shave his head too but Francis is unable to, so Amber does the shaving. Later that night Amber and Francis sneak into the bathroom and Francis shaves her head. Despite her being bald, Francis still feels she's beautiful and what is better is that she doesn't care. This helps him cope with this outward sign that he is seriously ill.

While Francis gradually improves, Amber still has many days were she does not feel well. When her flaky mother brings crystals to the hospital to try to help heal her daughter, Francis's mother, Julie, tells Colette that her daughter needs something like having her nails done to make her feel good about herself. After this confrontation, Julie offers to drive Colette to the hospital visits, beginning a sort of friendship between the two very different women.

Eventually Francis is well enough to return home, but not back to school. He is seen by a nurse once a day for treatment at home. Soon his cancer begins to respond to treatment. His first visit to the unit to see Amber finds her still very sick. Subsequent visits find her sometimes better, other times very sick. Throughout this time, Francis tries to be upbeat and positive while her return home to receive some of her treatments continues to be delayed. When Francis is not allowed to visit her one day because he doesn't feel well, he laments that "even breathing hurts when I'm not with her..."

Finally Amber is allowed to go home and Francis manages to convince his mother to let him visit. At Amber's home they listen to music and have sex, but by the following evening Amber is back in the unit. Amber is in and out of the unit for weeks leading up to Christmas.  Because they live so far away from each other and because their "Good Days" don't line up, it's difficult for Francis and Amber to see one another. Eventually before Christmas, Amber is released and her family spend Christmas with Francis and his family. But the joy of the holiday is ruined when Amber reveals to Francis that she is going back into hospital after Christmas. When Francis promises to visit, Amber tells him not to - that she needs to be on her own this time.

Not really understanding what is happening, Francis struggles to understand Amber's distance. He gradually comes to realize that while he is recovering, Amber may not be. When you are fifteen and in love, where does that leave you?


The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise is an irreverent look at teenagers coping with cancer. At it's core is the romantic relationship between romantic nerd Francis Wootton and the realistic, practical Amber Spratt.

As in life outside the hospital, in the cancer unit, Francis finds himself a social outcast.  Then along comes Amber Spratt whom Francis likes  - partly because she makes friends with him immediately. He also likes her because she is able to deal with Kelly and Paul, whom Francis considers to be superficial. Francis states that "In school Kelly would have had the upper hand. No matter how much she spat and snarled, Amber would have been torn limb from limb by Kelly and her crew, like a wildebeest calf faced with a pack of lions. But in the real world she had Kelly over a barrel. Every time she said something stupid, which was always, Amber was there to set her straight. " 

While Francis believes their little group in the cancer unit is analogous to the group of students in detention in the 1985 movie, The Breakfast Club  (Paul is Andy Clarke, the popular athlete, Amber is Allison Reynolds the social outcast and "basket case") Amber thinks she and Francis are like Bud and Fran in the Apartment, a 1960's Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine movie. In the movie, Bud, "a nervous geek falls in love with a loud mouth harlot" named Fran. Amber tells Francis "you won't have an trouble identifying".  Francis, however, tells Amber that she is like the star in John Keats love poem, Bright Star - "she's like a star...not because stars are shiny and stuff, but because they're always there, always looking down and that sort of thing."  But Amber prefers realism over Francis's romanticism. She tells him stars are like looking up at a million different memories" - referring to the science of stars. Amber tells Francis, "It's real, and that's what's important."

Crow continues this romance versus realism in other parts of the novel. Francis and Amber's first kiss is not romantic like in the movies. Instead, Francis states "our teeth clacked together and I could hear it magnified in my head. Teeth never seem to clack in films; it's all smooth running there." 

The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise is more about living than dying. It is not so much about dying from cancer as being about living life to the fullest despite being dealt a bad hand. Hence the reference to the final line in The Apartment. At the end of the movie, Shirley MacLaine's character, Fran, has a famous one line response, "Shut up and deal.", when Bud (Jack Lemmon) professes his love for her.  After all Bud and Fran have been through, they know the truth about each other and yet they still love one another. Life is full of "bad hands" and we must learn to accept and deal with it. This becomes Amber's final message to her romantic friend, Francis.

The tragedy of their relationship is hinted at early on when Amber's release from the unit is repeatedly delayed. Although Amber puts on a brave front when her treatment is not going well, Francis recognizes what she feels. "Those awful days when she'd joke for me but her eyes looked like they belonged to someone else, looked like they knew something the rest of her body wasn't yet willing to acknowledge." When Francis is released from the unit he wonders how he will cope:  "Already I knew that my days would be wasted without her. She was my strongest limb; without her I would be lost."

When Amber tells Francis she's going back into the unit after Christmas, he refuses to accept the reality that she must do this part alone and that he shouldn't text her.  Ever the romantic, he sends her numerous texts, concerned that not doing so would be a sign he doesn't care. But he begins to suspect that something is seriously wrong. When he confronts his mother she tells him the painful truth about Amber. This leads Francis to sneak into the unit to see her, hoping to convince her to live. Shocked at her condition  he tells her  his deepest fear. "The thing is, Amber, I need you to get better because I'm getting better, and the problem is I can't really remember what I ever did before I knew you. Before we were us. I know you must feel scared about being ill, but I'm starting to feel scared about getting better...about having to do anything without you." Sadly, Amber is too ill to help Francis and he leaves realizing that everything that will now follow is a mere formality.

Francis is scared to lose Amber because she's taught him how to live and he's not sure he can do life without her. Earlier in the novel,  Amber stated that in spite of death, life goes on around them. When Kelly insists that Amber is afraid to die, Amber tells Francis later on that she is not. Her father died of a heart attack when she was ten years old. Although she misses her father, she tells Francis about the reality of  death; "I know that it's just one less person at the dinner table, and they don't take the whole world with them; it carries on like it always has, only a bit sadder for a bit..." 

Amber's final message to Francis reveals that she accepts and acknowledges both his romantic view of life as well as her own more realistic approach. The envelope she leaves for him is filled with tiny gold stars - a nod to the poem he loved, Bright Star. Her message "Shut up and deal." - is a request to live life fully in her memory. She hasn't taken the whole world with her and there's more remaining for Francis. He does just that as he states in the chapter titled After. "Everything was how I'd always imagined it would be, but better. I spent my nights talking to interesting strangers about interesting things. I discovered friends who made me a better person. I read books that changed my life and watched films that left me so breathless that I would still be stuck to the seat long after the credits had finished rolling. I saw parts of the country, parts of the world, that at one point I couldn't even spell. I fell in and out of love on an almost daily basis, and said yes to any opportunity that came my way.  I lived."

The witty narrative of the socially inept, nerdy Francis Wootton makes the heavy topic of cancer, with its frightening possibilities, lighter and the novel wonderfully readable with his laugh out loud humour.  Crows characters are real, full bodied and interesting. The cast of supporting characters, Francis's mom, Julie, his grandmother, and Amber's mother, Colette, are all equally well formed.

Expecting The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise to be another The Fault in Our Stars novel would be to not do this book justice. It is different, better written and more subtle. It's "sick lit" and yet it's not- it's a story about living life to the fullest and appreciating every day, no matter our circumstances.

The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise was previously published in the UK under the title In Bloom.

Book Details:
The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise by Matthew Crow
New York: Simon Pulse        2015
295 pp.

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