Synopses & Reviews
Both a memoir and an investigation, Swimming in a Sea of Death
is David Rieff's loving tribute to his mother, the writer Susan Sontag, and her final battle with cancer. Rieff's brave, passionate, and unsparing witness of the last nine months of her life, from her initial diagnosis to her death, is both an intensely personal portrait of the relationship between a mother and a son, and a reflection on what it is like to try to help someone gravely ill in her fight to go on living and, when the time comes, to die with dignity.
Rieff offers no easy answers. Instead, his intensely personal book is a meditation on what it means to confront death in our culture. In his most profound work, this brilliant writer confronts the blunt feelings of the survivor the guilt, the self-questioning, the sense of not having done enough.
And he tries to understand what it means to desire so desperately, as his mother did to the end of her life, to try almost anything in order to go on living.
Drawing on his mother's heroic struggle, paying tribute to her doctors' ingenuity and faithfulness, and determined to tell what happened to them all, Swimming in a Sea of Death subtly draws wider lessons that will be of value to others when they find themselves in the same situation.
"What is shocking about the memoir is how ordinary Sontag seems....For a writer who voluntarily embarks on a memoir about his mother, Rieff is curiously silent on the subject of their relationship, but the contrast in styles speaks for itself." New York Times
"Ultimately, this book presents a son trying to understand his mother's life and death and needing validation that, in the end, he did the right thing. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"A beautifully formed and philosophically probing memoir of an all-out fight for life and a sons love for his mother, and a deeply moving tribute to a world-altering writer." Booklist
"Susan Sontag was fiercely, exuberantly alive, and uncompromising in her life no less than her work. David Rieff's fine, tender, and unflinching portrait of her final illness brings home her absolute determination to survive to the last to survive against the odds and live creatively despite a devastating disease and an unproven cancer treatment. At once a report from the frontlines of experimental oncology and a moving, absorbing personal account of his mother's last illness, Swimming in a Sea of Death is a courageous and darkly beautiful book." Oliver Sacks
"Rieff, who admits that he fears dying, writes thoughtfully about a child's duties in the time of dying. A useful handbook of a sort, as well as a concluding chapter to his mother's life." Kirkus Reviews
"Watching Sontag die from a distance here, seeing her strategize, strategize against the dying of the light, is to be reminded of what made her so impressive....Sontag's admirers will appreciate the son's many sharp insights into his mother." Philadelphia Inquirer
"[Rieff] brings a certain amount of literary confidence to the writing table....[An] intelligent, provocative memoir." Newsday
"Rieff's memoir of the last, excruciatingly painful months of his mother's life, is as riveting as it is unremittingly harrowing." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[T]here is the sadness at the heart of Rieff's testimony: that mothers die, as fathers do, regardless of what they or their children believe or disbelieve. It is our humanity that makes us mortal, not our creeds or their antitheses." Los Angeles Times
"Swimming in a Sea of Death, Rieff's memoir of the last, excruciatingly painful months of his mother's life, is as riveting as it is unremittingly harrowing. In those months, Sontag swung between despair and stubborn hope....The irony isn't lost on Rieff that his mother, a resolute atheist, had an almost religious belief in the always onward and upward progress of scientific research." Brigitte Frase, Star-Tribune (read the entire Star-Tribune review)
Both a memoir and an investigation, Rieff's tribute to his mother writer Susan Sontag explores her final battle with cancer and looks at the state of medical science and leading cancer physicians who combine treating patients with pursuing the cutting edge of research.
About the Author
David Rieff is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of seven previous books, including the acclaimed At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention; A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis; and Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West. He lives in New York City.