Your Wild and Precious Life by Liz Jensen – Review

Your Wild and Precious Life by Liz Jensen – Review (2)

By Barney Bardsley

Raphael Coleman was a young environmental activist – just 25 years old – when he collapsed suddenly in 2020 and died, whilst on a training mission to stop wildlife poachers in South Africa. After a complicated post mortem, the cause of death was given as “right ventricular hypertrophy due to pulmonary stenosis”. His heart – by all accounts a warm, generous and passionate heart – gave out on him. This book, written by his mother, about the white hot days of grief following his unexpected death, is part tribute to Raphael’s achievements, beliefs and personality; and part call to attention, as she takes on the mantle of her son’s ecological activism. But mostly it is an eloquent howl of pain and bewilderment, that someone so vibrant and precious could be cut down so soon.

Anyone who has ever lost someone will understand Liz Jensen’s response, as she takes us through the darkness of bereavement – but her words are also lit throughout with the bright, colourful light of love, and that makes the memoir a good deal easier to bear.

This is a book that I read almost in one breathless gulp, so it is hard to give the usual considered critique of its contents. Suffice to say, it moved me deeply, and left me in awe of the author’s ability to communicate her loss so powerfully. Such a rainbow of words pour from her pen, even in the face of her incalculable pain and loss. It is a mystery, but also testament to the fact that words – though we are often at a loss to find them in such circumstances – can also save us, and fasten us to meaning, when everything seems hopeless and bleak.

Jensen takes us from the moment of hearing of her son’s death, through the terrible days that follow, to the wonderful demonstration in central London in Raphael’s honour, held by his fellow activists in Extinction Rebellion and beyond, and then to the months that follow, where she starts to find some kind of peace and equanimity, just through the process of living: of surviving, and carrying on.

There is much that the bereaved will relate to in this book: the heart rending descriptions of emotional and physical pain in the grieving mother; the signs and portents – such as birds or animals suddenly appearing – that are seen everywhere, as evidence of the dead man’s presence; and the sense that time and space and all notion of “normal” life has disappeared, leaving one shipwrecked in a horrible new landscape of loss, day after day.

But what is less common is the powerful sense of premonition that also runs through the text. As soon as her first son Matti is born, decades prior to these events, Liz Jensen is seized with terror, only compounded by the arrival of her second born, Raphael: “I’m going to lose a child, I told the therapist. I don’t know which one. But one of them will die.”

Your Wild and Precious Life by Liz Jensen – Review (1)“Moving and compelling”

As the boys grow into young adulthood, and are healthy and strong, the fear recedes. But Raphael himself seems to echo such a dread. When he is just seven years old, he has a dream that he has died. And much later, when he films himself performing an astonishing and accomplished sequence of dance and parkour (which you can watch on his website – a film that is projected onto the side of Westminster Abbey at his own memorial celebration – he includes in the choreography a section where he falters and falls, and, amidst all his speed and certainty, appears to be suffering a cardiac arrest.

All these things take on a distinctly uncanny air in retrospect. And Jensen happily embraces all the weird and unfathomable events that happen in the wake of Raphael’s death, as well as before. Because what could be harder to fathom than the fact that your own son has died? It makes everything possible.

All of this is moving and compelling to read. But perhaps the most touching scenes in the book are the more ordinary ones, the simple acts of human kindness that help the author carry on. One such scene stands out. Jensen is waiting, alone, for a flight to South Africa, where she will join the rest of the family in identifying, collecting and cremating Raphael’s body. She goes to the bar and orders a glass of wine – fumbles as she drinks it, and smashes the glass. “‘I’m sorry’, I said, as the barman mopped it up. ‘My son just died’. He looked up, stricken. Wordlessly he poured me another glass.”

She starts to tell the man her story, released, as can so often be the case, by the fact that he is a stranger. “The barman’s eyes went dark with pain.” and at the end of their encounter, they share a wordless embrace. In the end, it is love that will save us, even the love of a momentary encounter.

As the months go by, Jensen becomes stronger and clearer in her intent. She will carry on the work her son started, she vows, as an ecological warrior, an activist, a passionate spokesperson for the natural world.

I feel I came to know her son vividly, through the power of her words. And, it seems, he will live on, too, in the actions he has inspired her to take. When my husband died, 20 years ago, I saw none of the vivid signs that Liz Jensen describes, of his continued invisible presence. No multicoloured bird, nor dashing urban fox. But I do remember walking in the local woods, past the tree where some of his ashes were scattered, and suddenly hearing his voice in my head. He said three simple words, “Live for me.” And that is what Liz Jensen is doing now, through this memoir and through her activism – living for her son, now that he is no longer here. Oh, how proud of her he would be.

‘Your Wild and Precious Life’ by Liz Jensen is published by Canongate


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