Debut author Sarah Benwell's tale of disability, youth and friendship [Review]

Debut author Sarah Benwell's tale of disability, youth and friendship [Review]

The Last Leaves Falling
By Sarah Benwell Published 
by Definitions/ Random House 
ISBN 978 1 909 53122 2

A work of fiction can do many things. It can entertain you, make you laugh, make you think and make you cry. But rarely will a story leave you as churned up as Sarah Benwell's The Last Leaves Falling.

This brave and important novel will bleed into your heart and mind and almost certainly bring you to tears. Benwell gets her reader so involved that even the hardest of souls will find the final few pages difficult to read.

Last Leaves is the story of Sora, a Japanese boy who has been diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative disease that will soon claim his life.

As anyone who did the ice bucket challenge last year should know, ALS damages the motor neurons that send messages to muscles, causing them to stop working and leading to eventual paralysis.

Sora is already in a wheelchair and unable to attend school. His mother cares for him, but both of them know what is going to happen soon. There is much love between mother and son, but there are also many long silences when their situation becomes almost too dreadful for either of them to bear.

Sora is the narrator of his own story; he's a tragic and compelling character, at times seemingly in charge of himself, and sometimes sinking deep under the weight of the inevitable.

Benwell walks through a minefield of difficult issues, but she doesn't put a foot wrong. Last Leaves could have been over-sentimental, with a rosy ending tacked onto the final pages; or it could have ended up as a depressing dirge from the first page to the last. Instead, here is a novel that only has room for truth.

Sora turns to Samurai poetry, and to the internet where he finds a couple of anonymous voices in a chat room who slowly become actual, supportive friends.

Kaito and Mai start off by connecting with Sora over normal teenage things, but when the three of them actually meet up, their friendship takes on a whole new meaning.

Stunningly powerful, beautifully written and emotionally charged, The Last Leaves Falling is a book set apart from the normal run of YA fiction.

It raises issues, releases feelings and, quite simply, brings tears to the eyes. She may be a debut novelist, but Benwell has written one of the most essential reads of this, or any other, year.

John Millen can be contacted on

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Debut author's unflinching tale of disability and inevitability


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