Drawing from two cultural perspectives, an acclaimed British-Guyanese writer and award-winning poet combines personal reminiscence and philosophy to reflect on a year of personal and global crisis, as he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic.
D’Aguiar’s memoir is the wildest of [recent books about illness]. Part of his defiance in the face of cancer is to throw everything he has onto the page. The result is weird and articulate and angry; there’s some overwriting, and sometimes the thread is nearly lost. But his rage to live shivers in every sentence ... I liked the sections in which D’Aguiar enters into a dialogue with his cancer. These reminded me of Benjamin Franklin’s dialogue with his gout, during which all he could sometimes utter was 'Oh! eh! oh!' ... I’m happy to report that Year of Plagues ends on a cautiously upbeat note. Cancer’s had to pipe down.
His book casts a valuable spotlight on what is so often glazed over in illness narratives: the importance of giving time to convalescence and the uneasy consolations that can be found in the transformation of perspective that severe, life-threatening illness can bring. Year of Plagues is a complicated book, given over to fugues and furies against the cancer itself, which is visualized as a character with whom D’Aguiar can dialogue ... In places it becomes a howl of grief, betrayal, and indignation, articulating the emotional and existential devastation of a cancer diagnosis.
This juxtaposition of the intensely physical reality of a body battling cancer and the spirit searching for answers and strength in literature makes for an unflinching narrative and a remarkable read. D’Aguiar’s acceptance of his body’s changes and his resilience are made all the more real as he shares vulnerabilities. Whether he describes difficulty peeing or getting ready for a shot in his buttocks or closely examines his relationship with his long-missing father, D’Aguiar offers keen and candid insights into the complexities of the human condition in the here and now.