Review: For When I’m Gone by Rebecca Ley (2020)


Because there’s never enough time to say goodbye…

Sylvia knows that she’s running out of time. Very soon, she will exist only in the memories of those who loved her most and the pieces of her life she’s left behind.

So she begins to write her husband a handbook for when she’s gone, somewhere to capture the small moments of ordinary, precious happiness in their married lives. From raising their wild, loving son, to what to give their gentle daughter on her eighteenth birthday – it’s everything she should have told him before it was too late.

But Sylvia also has a secret, one that she’s saved until the very last pages. And it’s a moment in her past that could change everything…


I was delighted to receive a beautiful finished copy of Rebecca Ley’s debut novel from Virginia Woolstencroft at Orion: huge thanks. This is my honest review of the book, which I devoured in two sittings (or lyings, as I read in bed!) When I read the blurb for this book, I was instantly reminded of Laura Pearson’s beautiful novel I Wanted You To Know, which I read earlier this year. That book also features letters from a woman suffering with breast cancer, and I started this with the same sense of trepidation, with the inevitability of tears and heartbreak creating tension from the very first page.

The structure of For When I’m Gone switches between Sylvia’s manual for her husband, Paul, written in a confessional first person, and sections from both Sylvia and Paul’s third person points of view (sometimes both in the same chapter) moving between ‘Then’ and ‘Now’. Through flashbacks and flash forwards, we build up a picture of their life together, and there are elements here of a classic love story: first meeting, first intimacy, marriage, kids. It is very much the story of their relationship, but what Ley does so brilliantly is show us a truly modern love story, revealing the cracks and the challenges that do not undermine how Sylvia and Paul feel about each other but rather bring it into reality. This is a real marriage, utterly convincing in its depiction of the way individuals bring their flaws and quirks to coupledom, bumping up against each other’s edges and differences. The prose style is surprising and wonderful – all of the words I scribbled down to describe it sound like biting into an apple: fresh, sharp, crisp, delicious…tangy (I know what I mean by tangy prose, apologies if I’ve lost you!). Ley writes as if each word has been plucked and scrutinised carefully, to make sure it is fit for purpose, and the results are stunning.

For me, the revelation of this book was not the eventual disclosure of Sylvia’s long-kept secret, but the gradual discovery of Sylvia herself, who is a fictional creation of staggering brilliance. It is all too rare to come across a female character who is so complex and flawed and sometimes downright unlikeable but who is not cast as a “bad person”. I wrote briefly about this last year after reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation: we need more Sylvias, more women who suffer and inflict suffering, who live through tragedies that might not make them stronger, who get it wrong but are not malevolent, who provoke the same reactions of frustration, annoyance, sympathy and understanding that we might feel for our own friends and family. I was so deeply involved in Sylvia’s story that I found myself arguing with her in my head (small example: when she calls herself selfish for choosing a home birth, it struck a personal chord with me and I got very cross!) By the end of the book, I felt as if I had met Sylvia and really knew her, which of course made the final chapters harder to bear.

In the author’s note that came with my copy of the book, Rebecca states that it was important to her that Sylvia not be perfect, that “Motherhood doesn’t confer saintliness, nor does breast cancer.” For When I’m Gone captures this brilliantly, as well as illustrating that life is not a respecter of tidy plot lines or single crises: tragedy does not strike once per family, and nor does it automatically make the sufferer “pure” or “good.” The novel is outstanding on motherhood, showing that we can be flawed people and good mothers, that motherhood changes but doesn’t “fix” us. I think this book is deeply important: fiction needs more women like Sylvia, and more writers like Rebecca Ley. I highly recommend it to anyone who is not likely to be triggered by its powerful themes. I am certainly looking forward to reading more from this hugely talented writer.

For When I’m Gone by Rebecca Ley is published by Orion on 3rd September and is available to preorder here.

(Note: I don’t want to add spoilers here by listing all the triggers, but will be asking the wonderful @jenjenreviews to add a page to @BookTWs’ excellent wiki for trigger warnings for books!)


4 thoughts on “Review: For When I’m Gone by Rebecca Ley (2020)

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