Everyone Is Still Alive – Cathy Rentzenbrink book review

Images above: Everyone Is Still Alive; Cathy Rentzenbrink

Everyone Is Still Alive is a first novel by author Cathy Rentzenbrink. I am claiming her as a Chiswick author, as she has lived here for many years, but in fact she has recently moved to Cornwall. Back for the Chiswick Book Festival 2021 she will be both talking about her own book and interviewing a couple of other novelists about theirs.

She is already a best-selling author for her account of the death of her brother The Last Act of Love, which deals with the agonising process a family goes through when a loved one is being kept alive by a life support machine and the time comes when they have to decide to let nature take its course.

Her brother Matt survived for nearly a decade in a coma after a car accident and Cathy’s book is a memoir of her teenage years, remembering him as he had been before the accident, but having to come to terms with how he then became, in a persistent vegetative state, and the final awful decision to turn off life support.

Although the title of her new book sounds alarming, Everyone Is Still Alive is a much lighter read. It’s a story about a couple and their young son who move to Chiswick, into the house where the woman, Juliet’s mother had lived until she died. It’s just an everyday tale of people getting to know their neighbours and settling into a neighbourhood, but in the way of good literature, though it deals with the superficial, it also has deeper veins running through it.

“I wanted to write about life being married with small children; often it’s more complicated than you think it is” Cathy tells me. “Modern marriage is really hard work”.

One wonders what Mr Rentzenbrink thinks of this, but like comedian Jo Brand or Jenny Eclair’s husbands, I expect he’lll survive the scrutiny.

“Stuff happens and you get bitter or you get wise”

Her writing reminds me of Anne Tyler’s: characters with whom you can easily identify, living very ordinary lives, assessing and comparing the possbilities and expectations of their life and weighing it up against how it really is.

“Everyone would be better off if they massively lowered their expectations of their partners and of life” she says. “We’re such a consumerist society, we talk about children as if they’re accessories. A lot of the unhappiness of modern life is that people have unrealistic expectations. Stuff happens and you get bitter, or you get wise.”

The book is about how you learn to live with the life you have. As they get to know the area and their neighbours, something happens which brings the community together and passing acquaintances they’re not altogether sure about, become friends.

I called her ‘wise’ and she says a lot of people describe her in that way. She’s also very knowledgeable about the book trade, in which she has worked for years. It’s maybe unhelpful when it comes to writing your own fiction, as you must become something of a perfectionist.

She says she was in a “creative tizzy”, having started writing this book in 2015 and thrown away several drafts, before her agent Jo Unwin stepped in to save one. She always meant to write novels, she tells me, but wrote three memoirs “accidentally”before this book, her first work of fiction.

Image above: Strand on the Green; photograph Jennifer Griffiths

What makes the book all the more interesting for anyone in Chiswick is that it is set, unambiguously, in Chiswick, in Magnolia Rd at Strand on the Green to be precise, with the local pubs and coffee shops namechecked and Strand on the Green Junior School as the place where Juliet and Liam’s son Charlie goes to school.

“I really like that area. I’m fascinated by how things change – or rather some things change and others don’t. You have this crosshatch of activity because of the river and transport links: the trains and planes. It would have been socially different in the past but in many respects it has remained the same”.

Having lived around here for 30 years, I know it well, but I also feel I know her characters, from the junior school PTA, from the neighbourhood. I don’t of course.

“I would be horrified if people thought it was about anyone recognisable” she says, but you certainly recognise the personality traits.

Everyone Is Still Alive has had fantastic reviews.

‘The bestselling writer’s first novel, about a family who move into a ‘hellishly privileged’ area, is a powerful study of mistrust, tragedy and friendship’ – Alex Preston in The Guardian

‘Perfect for fans of Motherland’ – Lucy Knight in The Times

Everyone Is Still Alive is funny and moving, intimate and wise; a novel that explores the deeper realities of marriage and parenthood and the way life thwarts our expectations at every turn’ – goodreads

You can buy the book online or at any good bookshop. Find out more about Cathy Rentzenbrink from her website.


Chiswick Book Festival

See Cathy Rentzenbrink talking to Janet Ellis about her book Everyone Is Still Alive at the Chiswick Book Festival 2021 at 1.30pm on Saturday 11 September at Chiswick Cinema.

Book tickets: Ticketsource/ChiswickBookFestival

See Cathy interviewing debut novelist Louise Hare about her book This Lovely City and Costa Short Story Award winner Luan Goldie about her book Homecoming at the Chiswick Book Festival 2021 at 12.00pm on Saturday 11 September in the Boston Room of George IV in ‘Finding Home’.

Book tickets: Ticketsource/ChiswickBookFestival

She will also be giving a workshop on how to write a memoir from 9.00 – 11.00am on Saturday 11 September at the ArtsEd on Bath Rd, ‘Where do I start?’

Book tickets: Ticketsource/ChiswickBookFestival

Cathy talked to me in 2016 before that year’s Chiswick Book Festival, about her memoir The Last Act of Love. Watch the video here.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Chiswick Book Festival 2021 whole programme

See also: Still Breathing – 100 Black Voices on Racism

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

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