Body Kintsugi by Senka Marić: A Peirene Press Novella (#NovNov22)

This is my eleventh translated novella from Peirene Press* and, in my opinion, their best yet. It’s an intense work of autofiction about two years of hellish treatment for breast cancer, all the more powerful due to the second-person narration that displaces the pain from the protagonist and onto the reader.

This is a story about the body. Its struggle to feel whole while reality shatters it into fragments. The gash goes from the right nipple towards your back, and after five centimetres makes a gentle curve up and continues to your armpit. It’s still fresh and red.

 

How does the story crumbling under your tongue and refusing to take on a firm shape begin to be told?

You knew on that day, sixteen years ago, when your mother’s diagnosis was confirmed, that you’d get cancer?

Or

Ever since that day, sixteen years ago, when your mother’s diagnosis was confirmed, that you’d never get cancer?

Both are equally true.

In 2014, just a couple of months after her husband leaves her – making her, in her early forties, a single mother to a son and a daughter – she discovers a lump in her right breast.

As she endures five operations, chemotherapy and adjuvant therapies, as well as endless testing and hospital stays, her mind keeps going back to her girlhood and adolescence, especially the moments when she felt afraid or ashamed. Her father, alcoholic and perpetually ill, made her feel like she was an annoyance to him.

Coming of age in a female body was traumatic in itself; now that same body threatens to kill her. Even as she loses the physical signs of femininity, she remains resilient. Her body will document what she’s been through: “Perfectly sculpted through all your defeats, and your victories. The scars scrawled on it are the map of your journey. The truest story about you, which words cannot grasp.”

As forthright as it is about the brutality of cancer treatment, the novella can also be creative, playful and even darkly comic.

Things you don’t want to think about:

Your children

Your boobs

Your cancer

Your bald head

Your death

Almost unbearable nausea delivers her into a new space: “Here, the only colours are black and red. You’re lost in a vast hotel. However hard you try, you can’t count the floors.” One snowy morning, she imagines she’s being visited by a host of Medusa-like women in long black dresses who minister to her. Whether it’s a dream or a medication-induced hallucination, it feels mystical, like she’s part of a timeless lineage of wise women. The themes, tone and style all came together here for me, though I can see how this book might not be for everyone. I have a college friend who’s going through breast cancer treatment right now. She’s only 40. She was diagnosed in the summer and has already had surgery and a few rounds of chemo. I wonder if this book is just what she would want to read right now … or the last thing she would want to think about. All I can do is ask.

(Translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth) [165 pages]

With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.

 

*Other Peirene Press novellas I’ve reviewed:

Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen

Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch

Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini

Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay

The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve

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12 responses

  1. I was so impressed with this novella: raw yet intimate with occasional flashes of black humour. The image that stays with me is her childhood memory of her grandfather holding her foot as she falls asleep which seems to steady her during her ordeal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a lovely moment! It counterbalances some of the traumatic memories.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Just as you’re not sure about your friend, I don’t know whether my daughter, who, as I think you know, had breast cancer before her 40th birthday just after being widowed, could read this: although maybe she could. The two share a knack for dark humour!

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    1. I’d forgotten just how young your daughter was at the time. I might share some passages with my friend, but I doubt she’d want to read the whole thing just now. If all goes well, maybe it’s the kind of thing she’d like to read some years down the line. I think enough time has passed that your daughter might appreciate it?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think that could be true. I’ll certainly see if I can find the book.

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  3. The “things you don’t want to think about” are very familiar from our own experience a score of years ago, along with the scariness of treatments which may or may not work and the imminent prospect of a double mastectomy.

    Emily had already done a study on the efficacy of Tamoxifen for her psychology degree, so knew all about survival rates from both disease and treatment, which added to her anxieties.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t know about your family’s personal experience with breast cancer. I’m sorry to hear about it, and I hope all turned out well for you. I do wonder if being super-informed ends up being a bad thing for patients! It’s hard to find the balance between trusting doctors and hoping for the best; and advocating for one’s own health.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. All is well now on that front, thanks, Rebecca. Yes, she knew enough about the treatments, the pressure from drug firms, and the public’s general inability to understand statistics about percentage risk when presented to them by hard-pressed medics, to cause her additional anxiety in addition to the natural fear that comes from a diagnosis. Knowledge can be a two-edged sword.

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  4. […] Body Kintsugi by Senka Marić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth – Rebecca at Bookish Beck […]

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  5. […] I think that’s a great showing. The 5-star stand-outs for me were The Hero of This Book and Body Kintsugi, but Up at the Villa was also a great […]

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  6. […] Body Kintsugi by Senka Marić: This intense work of autofiction is all the more powerful due to the second-person narration that displaces the pain of breast cancer from the protagonist and onto the reader. Coming of age in a female body was traumatic in itself; now that same body threatens to kill her. Even as she loses the physical signs of femininity, she remains resilient: Her body will document what she’s been through. As forthright as it is about the brutality of cancer treatment, the novella is also creative, playful and darkly comic. […]

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  7. […] lung cancer at age 36. My latest cancer-themed read was the excellent autobiographical novel Body Kintsugi by Senka […]

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