Review: Daughter of Family G

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I should preface this post by saying that I never read books about disease or terminal illness. I hate when it catches me off guard in fiction and I can’t do it in nonfiction. It’s part of my completely irrational belief that reading about those things somehow invites them into my life.

I know.

But when I read the description of Ami McKay’s memoir, Daughter of Family G: A Memoir of Cancer Genes, Love and Fate, I honestly didn’t clock that I’d be reading about the Big C. I’m smart about a lot of things but sometimes I’m a complete idiot.

family G

McKay, author of The Birth House, The Virgin Cure and The Witches of New York, is also a descendant of Family G, the first family to be medically recognized as having a genetic predisposition to certain kinds of fast-moving cancers. Starting in 1895, her great-great aunt Pauline had worked with pathologist Dr Aldred Warthin to map her family tree and the instances of cancers that had killed them one by one. She herself was fearful of dying young because of the same and sadly, she ended up being right.

Eventually a Dr Lynch is able to determine that there is a gene responsible for the higher instances of cancer and creates a test that can find out whether a person has inherited the gene. The idea is that once a person becomes aware of their predisposition, they can begin to schedule annual tests and screenings to catch any issues before they are terminal.

McKay, like her great-great aunt before her, has become the custodian of her family’s history. And when, as a young mother, she discovers that she too has inherited the gene, she has to figure out how to come to terms with her medical reality: maintaining her status as a previvor, staying on top of the tests and screenings she needs, educating some doctors about her status as someone with Lynch Syndrome, and how she feels about the potential that she has passed the gene onto her sons.

Daughter of Family G is an intensely intimate memoir. McKay is literally sharing her medical records and that of her entire family with readers. It is a love letter to the incredible women in her family; her mom Sally, her grandmother Alice, great-grandmother Tillie, and of course, great-great aunt Pauline. In tracing the history of her family’s cancers, of the work of Drs Warthin and Lynch, McKay also tells her own story of finding love, figuring out her destiny, moving to Nova Scotia, becoming a mother.

Not only did I learn so much about hereditary cancers and the power of knowledge when it comes to medicine, but I fell in love with McKay’s family. It’s so easy to see how she is drawn to telling stories about groups of women who make a difference in their community – that’s the kind of family she comes from, it’s what she knows. I’ve loved reading McKay’s fiction for years and now I feel like I have a deeper understanding of her work and where it comes from.

It should maybe also go without saying that this book is beautifully written. McKay weaves a spell with her gorgeous prose which feels like a feat when you stop and think about the fact that this is a book about cancer.

I loved this memoir and am very glad that I let it in my life. It is very much a story about what cancer can do but it is also a memoir of love and understanding, of the power of knowledge. I’m truly sad to leave the women of Family G – it was an honour to have ‘met’ them.