Book Review: The Weight of a Thousand Feathers by Brian Conaghan


Bobby has vivid dreams of his mother dying. They plague his nights. His mum has MS and she is deteriorating quickly at the time of this story. Bobby is acutely aware of what will happen to his mum:

“She will deteriorate, because that’s what happens with MS – it creeps up and bites sufferers on the arse when they’re least expecting.”

Both Bobby and his mum share a dark sense of humour, and they make light of the situation. The story is told from Bobby’s point of view and his voice is a really strong and unique one; he has a wonderful way with words that makes you smile despite the emotional story-line. He is struggling with his feelings of pain, anger and guilt, and is very aware of how he is feeling. He reflects on his experience of his mum’s diagnosis so far, going back to when he first realised his mum was ill “and my heart was broken. Torn to shreds in fucking Asda.” He also wonders why, when talking about his role in caring for his mum, the focus is always on the difficult feelings:

“Funny how no-one ever uses the word “love” when discussing my case. I do what I do because she’s my mum; she’s the only one I have so wouldn’t mind holding onto her a bit longer.”

Brian has captured the voice of a young boy going through a difficult time brilliantly, and this leads to The Weight of a Thousand Feathers being a really emotional read.

Bobby also has a younger brother, Danny, who has learning difficulties. The specifics of this are not known because, as Bobby says: “no need to pin a hefty life label on him is there?” Both boys feel the weight of their mother’s illness, but Bobby does his best to shield his brother from the worst of it. He jokes that they are “just your archetypal damaged nuclear family”. Bobby’s mum is always telling him how proud she is, and it’s nice to see a boy and his mum having such a close relationship.

Sometimes Bobby gets angry about what is happening to his family (hardly surprising under the circumstances):

“Why us? Why our family? Why not any of those sitting around us? Those who stare? Why do they get to enjoy normal things? Why the fuck does it have to be my mum? Our mum?”

Bobby has a wonderful friend called Bel who comes around and helps Bobby when she can. She cuts his mum’s hair and provides some much-needed friendship for Bobby. They have had an awkward almost-romance at one point, but both are trying to forget about this. Their friendship is a wonderful one to read.

As the story begins, Bobby is given the chance to attend a group for young carers. He’s not expecting much from it, but he goes along anyway and finds that all the other young carers are just as cynical as he is. They all have their own lives and problems to deal with. Bobby starts to make friends there; he finds himself attracted to another young carer, Lou, and these feelings confuse him on top of everything else.

Bobby is starting to feel as though he is coping well, and then his mum asks him something that changes his life forever: she asks him to help her end it.

“With one request, it’s bye-bye to the old Bobby.”

This broke me. I had mixed feelings, because I could see why Bobby’s mum didn’t want to live any more, but at the same time, it is a lot to ask of your son. Bobby might be doing a lot of adult things in caring for his mum and his brother, but he is still just a child and this request is something that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

The Weight of a Thousand Feathers has a big pro-assisted death message, largely articulated by Bobby’s mum and Lou. Lou expresses his thoughts very clearly, seeing the lack of assisted-death as:

“Forcin’ the dead to stay alive. Forcin’ everyone to grasp on to the only thing that remains: Goddam hope. What a bullshit concept that is.”

Assisted-death is an important topic, and although it is not one I have personal experience of, I felt Brian dealt with it very sensitively. However, it does contain some very distressing scenes and if MS or assisted-death are likely to be triggering for you, then I’d suggest avoiding this book. I have been waiting to read this since hearing Brian talk about it at an event last year, and it did not disappoint. A brilliantly written and emotional read, and one that I highly recommend.

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