I interviewed Simon Stephenson for the British Medical Journal in 2003. Recently qualified as a medical doctor, he had just made a short film, but what impressed me most were his unpublished short stories. It would have taken a catastrophe to crush his irrepressible joie de vivre.
The catastrophe came. On Boxing Day 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed 230,000 people. One of them was Stephenson's brother Dominic, holidaying on the Thai island of Phi Phi.
Stephenson's first book, raw and unflinchingly honest, describes his loss. It outlines the harrowing details behind the headlines – the search of morgues for Dominic's body by an uncle; the gut-punch of the transfer of remains, funeral and service; and Stephenson's trips to Phi Phi to help build a memorial garden. The latter provides comfort through locals whose lives were also torn apart. Chief among these is wise, funny, but broken bar owner Ben, who lost his wife, two daughters, closest sister, 12 cousins, friends, home and livelihood. Stephenson is sensitive on grief, astute on the salacious hunger of some foreign journalists and captures the humility of the Thai people.
The emotionally draining horror of the tragedy is lifted by reminiscences about the brothers' time together. Teenage escapades and mischief humanise Dominic, and their closeness is heartachingly apparent. At the service, Philip Larkin's famous line from "An Arundel Tomb" is quoted: "What will survive of us is love." It is love that provides the safety net, which saves Stephenson in his darkest days. This includes acts of immense kindness from strangers (the then Chancellor Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah radiate empathy), the unspoken comfort of male company, and the support of friends and family.
Despite the sobering topic, there are entertaining asides. One such is Stephenson's admission to hospital with dengue fever. He sends himself up with typical self deprecation: while wandering the corridors feverishly, he wore lurid silk boxers and a heavy overcoat. Airport rage provides another funny moment.
Early on, a couple of sentences present a slight barrier in their formality. But this tic soon dissipates, leaving Stephenson's lucid prose. His debut is not an easy read but an excoriatingly honest and profoundly moving account of grief. It is an elegiac tribute of which any sibling would be proud.