Wednesday's book: Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie (Penguin, pounds 5.99)

Ruth Picardie's liberal parents left South Africa in the "ugly aftermath of Sharpeville", writes her husband, Matt Seaton, in the preface to this book by and about his deceased wife. The family had to contend with another sort of injustice when Ruth died of cancer aged 33, less than a year after being diagnosed.

The book, which takes its name from the title of seven columns Ruth wrote in The Observer just before she died in September 1997, is also a collection of E-mails between Ruth and her close friends during that last year. It includes letters from sympathetic strangers and two handwritten letters from Ruth to each of her twins, Lola and Joe, whose second birthday celebrations she only just lived to attend. There is a superb foreword and "afterwords" written by her husband. The book should be judged as a human document rather than literature, although Ruth's Observer columns were polished, punchy, full of raw anger and black humour. Her E-mails share these ingredients.

Ruth tried Chinese herbs, had her eyebrows shaped and, in one heart-rending episode, found herself weeping in Paperchase while trying to buy "memory boxes" for her children. She gave in so rarely to self-pity that these occasional lapses are all the more poignant. Most of the time she was determinedly courageous and dealt with her imminent death and physical pain - severe headaches owing to a brain tumour - with tireless, almost flippant defiance. Her friends replied in the same vein.

I found the self-mocking humour relentless, and would have almost been relieved if Ruth had given way to complete despair, which I'm sure she sometimes did in private. She and most of her friends were atheists. Would it have been easier for her, and for them, if they hadn't been? Instead, as a self-confessed "post-feminist chick" she found solace in Pret-a- Manger, Ghost and style magazines. It seems sad that these products acted as life-lines, but I suppose this is the reality of life in a secular age.

Of a different order (although the letters from strangers are kind, thoughtful and often moving) are Matt Seaton's last few pages. His account gives a distinctive perspective on the tragedy of a young woman dying long before she was ready. His absence of bitterness is impressive. He does not flinch from describing, in simple and dignified prose, exactly what he saw.

Here is Ruth shortly after death: "With her hamsterish cheeks, her scruffily cropped hair, and her lips palely parted, she looked suddenly very young, quite childlike. Not lovely perhaps, as once she had been, but very peaceful."

Such truthfulness shows more love than if he had praised her perfect goodness, or some other quality unattainable by human beings.

For each copy of `Before I Say Goodbye' sold, 10p goes to the Lavender Trust, which helps young women with breast cancer. Tel: Breast Cancer Care, 0171-384 2984. Address: The Lavender Trust Fund, Breast Cancer Care, Freepost LON 644, London SW6 4BR.

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