Book Review: “Still, I Cannot Save You” by Kelly S. Thompson
It might seem to be weird that Still, I Cannot Save You is a book being released on Valentine’s Day 2023. After all, even though this is a book about the bond between two sisters, that bond is not necessarily, on the surface, a very loving one. Anyone who has siblings can probably relate to the fact that life growing up with them is not always sunshine, unicorns, and rainbows. This is true of the Thompson household. Separated by three years, the elder daughter Meghan decides to crash a car at the age of 16 while wearing the favourite shirt of her younger sister (who’s the author of this tale), which then gets torn up by first responders attending to the accident. That’s just one of the litany of offenses between the two. In their 20s, Meghan shoplifts, is a drug addict, and nearly winds up in jail, the latter being thanks to her sister — who testifies against her. Thus, if this is a “love” story, it is one of tough love and seemingly — at least, at first — a lack of compassion. The situation does eventually stabilize, but not before Meghan finds herself in an abusive marital relationship with her husband, who may suffer from a mental illness, and then — as a childhood survivor of kidney cancer — suddenly gets a diagnosis in her mid-30s that turns everyone’s lives upside down.
I don’t think I’m spoiling the book to say that this is a tragedy. The book’s title, after all, alludes to the ending and the subtitle uses the words “letting go,” which I’m sure you can use your imagination to decode what that actually might mean. (Despite that, I’m trying to be somewhat vague as the promotional materials I’ve read online don’t refer to the book’s outcome.) This is a five-hanky weepie written by a woman for other women who have experienced trauma in their families. But, as a male, I must confess that I didn’t have a dry eye by this memoir’s end — I wasn’t crying, but I had watery eyes. (So, if anyone needs confirmation that I have a feminine side, let that be it.) This is an expertly weaved and written story, even if I did find the beginning to be a bit patchy and unusual for introducing a character in Meghan who seems, at first blush, to be completely unlovable before quickly moving on to a place where she is loved by her family — despite her imperfections. Still, I Cannot Save You is a book best read by women who have something of a broken relationship with their sisters. And, if Margaret Atwood is right to suggest that every Canadian book is about survival and victimhood (as I understand her work), then this is a very Canadian book.
I’m actually of a couple of minds about the narrator, though. Without meaning to sound obnoxious or rude, especially because this is a “true story” about real people (and I’m not intending on getting sued here), Kelly does sometimes come across a little bit as a know-it-all, “I told you so” type of character in her narration. Perhaps some of this is to realizations that come when looking at things using hindsight, but her tone can be a little grating to the reader at first. However, in this way, she also is being unflinchingly honest and emotionally raw in how she frames and tells her story. She is also candid about her struggles with depression and various bodily ailments throughout the book which, in turn, may affect her self-assessment and portrayal.
Set in pre-pandemic times, Still, I Cannot Save You is the product of a lot of inner reflection on family relationships and certain dynamics within those relationships. Thus, one can look at the book in a couple of different and fascinating ways. It works as a straight-up memoir between women, which would appeal to every hot-blooded female on the planet (well, those with an affinity for all things Canadian) and it also works as something of an examination of the dynamics of violence against women. It also says a little bit about the nature of narcotics addiction, but I did wish this aspect was mined a little more deeply. Aside from being told that Meg suffers from cocaine and opioid addiction, we don’t see the impact of that aside from criminal behaviour, nor do we get any insight into the recovery process when Meghan stopped the abuse. I guess this is to be somewhat protective of someone’s privacy and legacy.
That being said, this must have been a draining and difficult book to write because of its deeply personal nature and the fact that, no matter what or how unlikable her sister might have been from time to time, there was also a bond between them, and that bond was of love and compassion as it would turn out. Did I agree with every choice that either of the main characters of this tale makes? Of course not. To that end, Still, I Cannot Save You is a memoir of what it means to be human, if not a woman. I suppose it could also be said that this is a book about what it is like to be a flawed individual. We’re not perfect, we all make mistakes — and sometimes those mistakes are grievous. However, this is a book that shows the possibility of redemption and the healing salvation from one’s family so long as one’s behaviour is no longer violent or criminal. This is a challenging and emotionally disturbing memoir to sit through, but for those who don’t view the world through the lenses of a Pollyanna, then Still, I Cannot Save You is a welcome addition to the family of books about dealing with diseases of a varying sort. And, yes, if you’re anything like me and have something of a heart, you may just very well see a tear dribble down your face as you read the mournful conclusion to this testimony of a sometimes-troubled sisterhood.
Kelly S. Thompson’s Still, I Cannot Save You: A Memoir of Sisterhood, Love, and Letting Go will be published by McClelland & Stewart on February 14, 2023.
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