It’s safe to say that I read a lot of memoirs. Perhaps too many, but I like the genre because most – the really good ones – remind me that we are all flawed and complicated, doing the best we can, and none of us are free from suffering. “Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted” (Random House) by Sulieka Jaouad is not an easy book to read, but one that is perceptive with its honesty and insight into human nature. The title comes from a book by Susan Sontag that describes everyone as having dual citizenship in both the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. “Between Two Kingdoms” details the author’s time in both kingdoms, each as equally hard to leave and enter as the other.
In her early twenties, Suleika was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and her world became doctor appointments, treatments and hospital visits. In her book, she takes the reader through a diagnosis and the subsequent years of survival that followed. What results is an emotional tale of triumph over years of “incanceration” and a life reimagined while picking up the scattered pieces that illness left behind.
Her social life was with her medical staff and co-patients, her boyfriend Will, and her parents who are beside themselves with worry. Suleika is forced to face her own mortality while grieving for her fellow patients who die from their cancers. Surviving her treatment, she finds the journey back to the kingdom of the well just as overwhelming and difficult to face. She is no longer the same person, and she goes on a journey to meet the people who wrote to her and helped her when she was at her lowest.
When the book opens, in 2010, Suleika has just graduated from Princeton and has her sights set on a career as a war correspondent. The daughter of a Tunisian-born French literature professor and a Swiss-born painter, she can play the double bass and speak French and Arabic. She moves to Paris, where she fell in love. Then her health begins to decline. “It began with an itch,” she says, sure it’s some internal “bug.” “As my energy evaporated and the itch intensified,” she writes, “I told myself it was because the parasite’s appetite was growing. But deep down, I doubted there ever was a parasite. I began to wonder if the real problem was me.” It wasn’t her, although the post-graduation use of cocaine and alcohol didn’t help.
Returning from Paris at the urging of doctors, Suleika moved home to New York and her parents for support. There she learned the awful truth. She had a form of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow that no amount of coffee or uppers could overcome, “Not evidence of partying too hard or an inability to cut it in the real world, but something concrete, something utterable that I could wrap my tongue around.” It usually strikes people in their 60s and 70s not in their 20s and, with just a 35% chance of survival, she could not take care of herself at all, and needed someone with her constantly. Her kindhearted boyfriend, who Suleika hadn’t dated for very long, and mom ended up taking shifts because she could not be alone. On one heartbreaking occasion, she is on her own briefly for an evening and doesn’t even have the energy to get food to take with her medication. Her boyfriend comes home to find her sick on the floor.
Fighting her disease for almost four years, Suleika also wrestled with complicated issues about mortality and hope. Fortunately, all the endless hours in hospitals and clinics, all the chemotherapy and psychological therapy and blood work and anguish resulted in her continued residence in the kingdom of earth – though not all of her fellow travelers were as fortunate. While still being treated and advised against traveling, she took a friend’s ashes to India, “a first exercise in confronting my ghosts.” The trip was also part of a program of lifting her vision from the intensely self-focused back to the larger world, which set her on a rehabilitative road trip and the memorable realization that “it all can be lost in a moment,” good reason to enjoy life while you can.
The young Suleika experienced more than most of us will encounter in a lifetime. She wanted to get her story out, to have her life mean something. She penned a blog, which quickly turned into a column for the New York Times called “Life Interrupted.” It documents her horrendous treatments and, in a way, Suleika becomes a different sort of war correspondent. People begin to write to her from around the world to express their support, and share their experiences and stories. To help herself move on, and to prove her independence to herself, Suleika got her driver’s license and bought an aging, bright yellow VW “pop-top” and traveled across the United States with an adopted terrier mutt. She searched for herself while visiting all kinds of people she came to know as she fought for her life – there was Lil’GQ, a convicted murderer who wrote to her about the brutality of isolation; Bret, a man whom she met in a hospital waiting room and with whom she formed a lasting bond; and Katherine, a high school teacher in California mourning the suicide of her bipolar son.
She takes a little bit of wisdom from each person she meets. “The tangling of so much cruelty and beauty has made of my life a strange, discordant landscape. It has left me with an awareness that haunts the edges of my vision – it can all be lost in a moment – but it’s also given me a jeweler’s eye,” She writes. “If I’m thinking about my illness, then the answer is: No, I would not reverse my diagnosis if I could. I would not take back what I suffered to gain this.” This attitude is what makes “Between Two Kingdoms” so beautiful. Distressing and inspiring is the thought that even after suffering years of a body hovering on the line of existence and expiration, the author would not trade her circumstances. The hope that Sulieka clings to throughout an often-desperate situation challenges the reader to do the exact same thing. Unforgettable, poetic, and, in the end, hopeful, “Between Two Kingdoms” is a book that is exquisitely written and speaks to anyone who suffers from illness and loss.