Part of my reading slowdown in March was due to Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad, which is a very good book that happened to take me a long time to get through. It’s a memoir about Jaouad’s diagnosis of leukemia in her early 20s, the years of intense treatment she endured, and her life post-treatment. The titular “two kingdoms” comes from Susan Sontag, who coined it to represent the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick, and they describe Jaouad’s experience of perpetually looking from one into the other.
Why I picked it up: Between Two Kingdoms got on my radar when it came out in early February, and I was interested in learning more about what it’s like to face a very serious illness at a young age.
In 2010, Jaouad graduated from college and moved, like many of her classmates, to New York City, where she had secured an internship. While she noticed some persistent symptoms like exhaustion and an itch that wouldn’t go away, she never imagined that she in fact had an aggressive form of leukemia. She decided to move to Paris, found a job, and started her adult life there, only to get progressively sicker and have to return to the U.S. to figure out what was going on. Jaouad’s frightening diagnosis set her on a journey through chemotherapy, isolation in hospitals, myriad health scares, a bone marrow transport, and, ultimately, life post-cancer. Along the way, her relationships with her parents, boyfriend, friends and fellow cancer patients were tested and transformed. Between Two Kingdoms is about that journey, as well as the 5,000-mile road trip she took with her rescue dog Oscar once she was finished with treatment, visiting some of the people she had corresponded with while she was sick.
Between Two Kingdoms is a serious, intense read, not one to be skimmed. I found myself focusing on every word, every sentence, not just to keep up with the stages of Jaouad’s disease and treatments, but to track how she changed as a person. I dogeared so many pages of this book which contained poignant observations about her situation. “For the person facing death, mourning begins in the present tense, in a series of private, preemptive goodbyes that take place long before the body’s last breath.” or “There is no restitution for people like us, no return to days when our bodies were unscathed, our innocence intact. Recovery isn’t a gentle self-care spree that restores you to a pre-illness state.” Between Two Kingdoms is filled with lines like that, and I wanted to savor and study them rather than racing through them to get to the end.
I found Between Two Kingdoms to be profoundly moving, yet also accessible and relatable. Jaouad does not hold back and she does not flinch, and I really admire her for undertaking what must have been an overwhelmingly difficult project.
Between Two Kingdoms was the 14th book of 2021.