This book is about sixteen people who had huge, life-defining achievements / events relatively early in their lives, and what they did next. It includes astronauts, adventurers, a pilot, a singer, a gymnast, and survivors. When the first line of your obituary is already written, how do you move on from that? And how do you deal with it when you go on to achieve many other things, but all anyone cares about is that one event?
I was really excited to get my hands on this. The ‘what next’ is always more interesting to me than the ‘happily ever after’, but those stories are rarely told. One of the chapters that has stuck with me the most is the chapter on Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who was the first to achieve a perfect 10 in the Olympics (and eventually scored seven 10s in the competition) at the age of just 14. The ‘what next’ of female gymnasts has always fascinated me – they can have a whole career and it be over before commentators have stopped saying ‘they just need to mature’ about athletes of the same age in other sports. The thing with Nadia is, she didn’t go back home to sponsorships and financial security, she did gymnasts for a little longer and then had to deal with the increasingly brutal regime of Ceausescu and poverty. As Wright says “Learning about this period in her life, I realise how frivolous the central conceit of my book and this interview – deciding what to do with the rest of one’s life after an immense and defining achievement – must seem. Because in her case, what came next was a bitter, constant, day-by-day battle to stay afloat”. Eventually she defected and ended up in America, which wasn’t just walking into an embassy, it was wading through icy lakes, climbing over barb wire fences, and walking for hours. And then came adjusting to life to in the States….
The stories and people in this book aren’t just about achievements; there are also a few people who have had life-defining things happen to them. Like Russ Ewin, who was one of only a handful of survivors of the Sandakan prison-of-war camp, and how he lived a full life afterwards, but that by being one of so very few to survive we put a kind of burden on him to often re-tell, re-live, and represent the story of what happened. And the crew of United 232, who handled an apparently unsurvivable plane malfunction, and how they dealt with the trauma, grief and feeling of responsibility for those who did not survive.
As Wright talks a little about in the introduction and epilogue, the people in this book are almost all men, almost all white. I understand what he said about why – he started from an interest in American adventurers, particularly astronauts, and they tended to come out of the post-war military, which was very white and male. But I found the lack of diversity noticeable as I was reading, and I wonder if Wright could have found a way to be a bit more inclusive. I definitely would have preferred a longer book with a greater variety of stories, not just in terms of race and gender, but also in the kind of achievement/event. (Incidentally, an interview with Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, which didn’t make it into the book, can be found here).
However, as it is something he is aware of himself, and seems keen for more, I’m really hoping there will be a second volume with a little more balance – I would pick it up in a heartbeat. Fascinating and extremely readable.