Nan Shin was an American woman living as a Zen Buddhist nun in France. She is diagnosed with advanced uterine cancer, undergoes surgery and chemotherapy and, by the end of the book, it appears, is dying. Her account does not, however, take the conventional form of the illness narrative; in fact its form might be called anti-narrative, for its focus is not on the story of Shin's illness and dying, but rather on the "every day living" that is at the center of her Zen beliefs.

The book consists of several strands that recur in alternating sections. One strand describes, in minute detail, the course of a single day's devotions and activities in the life of a Zen nun. Another traces the author's travels in the United States with her sensei, an astonishing man whose perspective on American culture is both detached and hilariously insightful.

A third tells of the author's frequent horseback rides through the French countryside, with beautifully focused and precise descriptions of the natural surroundings. Finally, there is the illness, presented matter-of-factly but conveying powerfully the author's (not always wholly successful) efforts to put into practice, in such trying circumstances, all she has learnt as a practitioner of Zen.


This book would be an invaluable contribution to discussions of illness narratives because of its resistance to the narrative form, and because of the philosophical underpinnings of this resistance. "Every day living," as Shin presents it, means not the dully quotidian but a clear focus on the here and now that counters the Western, strongly narrative concern with the consequences of the past for an anxiously-expected future.

Shin's attention to the immediate makes her writing exquisitely observant of seemingly minor details. It also offers a powerful lesson about responding to illness: without urgent attachment to the things we value and to our predetermined responses to experience (like fear of pain and of dying), even terminal illness can be kept in its place, as just one strand in the complex experience of being alive in the present.


Nan Shin's name, before she became a nun, was Nancy Amphoux. The book is illustrated with pencil drawings by Peter Watson.


E. P. Dutton

Place Published

New York



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