The Barbellion Prize 2020 will be awarded tomorrow “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” (See also my reviews of Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.)
These two memoirs, though very different outwardly, both draw attention to the practical and emotional challenges of life with disability or a mental illness, and call for compassion from individuals and a commitment to help from governing bodies.
The Fragments of My Father: A memoir of madness, love and being a carer by Sam Mills
One in eight people in the UK cares for an ill or disabled relative. Sam Mills has been a carer for a parent – not once, but twice. The first time was for her mother, who had kidney cancer that spread to her lungs and died one Christmas. A few years later, Mills’s father, Edward, who has paranoid schizophrenia, started having catatonic episodes, as with the incident she opens her memoir on. In 2016, on what would have been her mother’s 70th birthday, Edward locked himself in the toilet of the family home in Surrey. Her brother had to break in with a screwdriver and ambulance staff took him away to a hospital. It wasn’t the first time he’d been institutionalized for a mental health crisis, nor would it be the last. It was always excruciating to decide whether he was better off at home or sectioned on a ward.
Mills darts between past and present as she contrasts her father’s recent condition with earlier points in their family life. She only learned about his diagnosis from her mother when, at age 14, she saw him walk down the stairs naked and then cry when he burned the chips. While schizophrenia can have a genetic element, relatives of a schizophrenic are also more likely to be high achievers. So, although Mills went through a time of suicidal depression as a teenager, meditation got her through and she exhibits more of the positive traits: An author of six books and founder of the small press Dodo Ink, she is creative and driven. Still, being her father’s full-time carer with few breaks often leaves her exhausted and overwhelmed.
The book’s two main points of reference are Leonard Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who cared for mentally ill wives and had to make difficult choices about their treatment and housing. In a nutshell, Mills concludes that Woolf was a good carer while Fitzgerald was a terrible one. Leonard was excused World War I service due to his nervous exhaustion from being a carer, and he gave up on the idea of children when doctors said that motherhood would be disastrous for Virginia. Virginia herself absolved Leonard in her suicide note, reassuring him that no couple could have been happier and that no one could have looked after her better. Scott, on the other hand, couldn’t cope with Zelda’s unpredictable behaviour – not least because of his own alcoholism – so had her locked up in expensive yet neglectful institutions and censored her work when it came too close to overlapping with his own plots.
The Fragments of My Father brings together a lot of my favourite topics to read about: grief, physical and mental illness, and literary biography. It had already been on my wish list since I first heard about it last year, but I’m glad the Barbellion Prize shortlisting gave me a chance to read it. It helps to have an interest in the Fitzgeralds and Woolfs – though in my case I had read a bit too extensively about them for this strand to feel fully fresh. (I also had a ‘TMI’ response to some revelations about the author’s relationships and sex life.)
Ultimately, I most appreciated the information on being a carer, including the mental burden and the financial and social resources available. (Although there is a government allowance for carers, Mills wasn’t eligible because of her freelance earnings, so she had to apply for Society of Authors grants instead.) With caring so common, especially for women, we need a safety net in place for all whose earnings and relationships will be affected by family duties. I read this with an eye to the future, knowing there’s every possibility that one day I’ll be a carer for a parent(-in-law) or spouse.
Readalikes I have also reviewed:
- Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care by Madeleine Bunting
- All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katharine Smyth
“had I ever made a conscious choice? Caring felt like something that was happening to me, as though my father’s illness had been an eruption that had flowed like lava over my life. … I can’t think of any other job where someone defines your role by conferring its title on you, as though they are holding out a mould that you must fill.”
“caring is rarely simple because its nature is not static. It creates routines, crafts the days into set shapes, lulls you into states of false security, and then mutates, slaps you with fresh challenges, leaves you lost just when you feel you have gained wisdom.”
With thanks to Fourth Estate for the free copy for review.
Kika & Me: How one extraordinary guide dog changed my world by Dr Amit Patel with Chris Manby
Dr Patel grew up in Guildford, studied medicine at Cambridge, and specialised in trauma medicine as a junior doctor in London. Diagnosed with keratocornus, which changes the shape of the cornea (it affects 1 in 450), he required first special contact lenses and then a series of cornea transplants. By the time of his eighth transplant, he’d remortgaged his house to pay an American specialist. Meeting and marrying Seema was a time of brightness before, in November 2013, he completely lost his vision within 36 hours. Blindness meant that he could no longer do his job, and constant eye pain and inactivity exacerbated his depression. While white cane and Braille training, plus the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s “Living with Sight Loss” course, started to boost his independence, it was being paired with his guide dog, Kika the Labrador, in 2015 that truly gave Patel his life back.
Trying out guide dogs sounds a little bit like speed dating. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (founded in the UK in 1931) warned that Kika was a “Marmite dog,” moody and likely to push boundaries; there was no guarantee she and Patel would get along. But from the start Kika was just right for him. More than once, what seemed like her pure stubbornness – lying on his feet and refusing to move – kept him from dangerous situations, like getting trapped between a busy road and a building site on an unfamiliar route. After a 10-day core skills training course, during which man and dog stayed at a hotel together, Kika was ready to join them at home. In the days to come, she would learn all Patel’s usual routes around their neighbourhood and into the City – with the help of smears of mackerel pâté.
If you’re like me, you’ll be most curious to learn about the nitty-gritty of life for a visually impaired person. I loved hearing about how Patel practiced his Braille letters with an egg container and ping pong balls. Since he went blind, he and his wife have had two children, and with Kika’s help manoeuvring a baby buggy is no problem. Guide dogs are trained to be predictable, e.g., doing their business in the same spot at the same times so it’s much easier to find and clean up. Some dog training tricks also worked for children, like putting a bell on a Labrador or a toddler to know when they wandered off!
Patel has had some unfortunate experiences since he went blind, particularly on the London Underground: teenagers picking him up and spinning him around on a train platform, busy commuters barging past him and Kika on an escalator, and an impatient woman hitting Kika with her handbag. While Patel doesn’t like being negative on social media, he finds that posting video clips of these incidents raises awareness of the challenges VIPs face. Every time he hits a setback, he uses it as an opportunity. For instance, one Diwali he was excited to visit Neasden Temple, only to be dismayed that they wouldn’t allow Kika inside. Since then, he has worked with temples around the world to improve disability services. He is also involved in London’s “Transport for All” work, and advises companies on access issues.
More so than the rest of the shortlist, Kika & Me is illuminating about daily life with a disability and has a campaigning focus. It’s an easy read, and not just for animal lovers. Judging the book by the cover, I might not have picked it up otherwise, so I’m grateful that the Barbellion put it on my radar. I’m deeply impressed by what Patel has achieved and the positive attitude he maintains. (Kika has her own Twitter account! @Kika_GuideDog)
With thanks to Pan Macmillan for the free copy for review.
Next year the Barbellion Prize hopes to award more money, including to all nominated authors. They are accepting submissions for 2021, and are grateful for any Paypal donations via their website (see the page footer). I’ve donated to the cause. Can you help, too?
Although over 100 books from the second half of the year are already on my radar, I’ve limited myself here to the 15 July to November releases that I’m most excited about.
The modest number is a cheat in that I’ve already read seven books from this period in advance (plus I’m currently reading another three), and I haven’t listed any that I already have access to via proofs, promised finished copies, NetGalley, Edelweiss, or library preorders. Some of these that I intend to read are A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne, D (A Tale of Two Worlds): A Modern-Day Dickensian Fable by Michel Faber, Bringing Back the Beaver by Derek Gow, Just Like You by Nick Hornby, How to Fly (poems) by Barbara Kingsolver, Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell, Summerwater by Sarah Moss, Lake Life by David James Poissant, Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink, Jack by Marilynne Robinson and The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn.
(Meanwhile, two of my overall most anticipated 2020 releases have been pushed back to 2021, at least in the UK: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and The Anthill by Julianne Pachico.)
The following are in release date order, within sections by genre; the quoted descriptions are from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads. For most I’ve added a note on why I want to read it. Nonfiction dominates: this seems to be the way of 2020 for me. Lots of flora and fauna on the covers and in the themes. Look out for antlers x 2.
Artifact by Arlene Heyman [July 9, Bloomsbury] “A sweeping debut novel about love, sex, motherhood, and ambition that follows a gifted and subversive scientist’s struggle to reach beyond cultural constraints for the life she wants. … Artifact is an intimate and propulsive portrait of a whole woman.” Susan of A life in books put me onto this one; here’s her review.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson [Aug. 13, Jonathan Cape / Aug. 25, Riverhead] “After a serious case of school bullying becomes too much to bear, sisters July and September move across the country with their mother to a long-abandoned family home. … With its roots in psychological horror, Sisters is a taut, powerful and deeply moving account of sibling love.” I loved Johnson’s Booker-shortlisted debut, Everything Under.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke [Sept. 15, Bloomsbury] “Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless. … For readers of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane … Piranesi introduces an astonishing new world.” It feels like forever since we had a book from Clarke. I remember devouring Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell during a boating holiday on the Norfolk Broads in 2006. But whew: this one is only 272 pages.
The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey [Nov. 5, Gallic / Oct. 27, Riverhead] “A beautiful and haunting imagining of the years Geppetto spends within the belly of a sea beast. Drawing upon the Pinocchio story while creating something entirely his own, Carey tells an unforgettable tale of fatherly love and loss, pride and regret, and of the sustaining power of art and imagination.” His Little was one of my favorite novels of 2018.
Dearly: New Poems by Margaret Atwood [Nov. 10, Chatto & Windus / Ecco / McClelland & Stewart] “By turns moving, playful and wise, the poems … are about absences and endings, ageing and retrospection, but also about gifts and renewals. They explore bodies and minds in transition … Werewolves, sirens and dreams make their appearance, as do various forms of animal life and fragments of our damaged environment.”
Bright Precious Thing: A Memoir by Gail Caldwell [July 7, Random House] “In a voice as candid as it is evocative, Gail Caldwell traces a path from her west Texas girlhood through her emergence as a young daredevil, then as a feminist.” I’ve enjoyed two of Caldwell’s previous books, especially Let’s Take the Long Way Home. Also, I’ve been reading a lot of childhood memoirs and I like comparing them to see how authors capture that time of life.
The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills [July 9, Fourth Estate] A memoir of being the primary caregiver for her father, who had schizophrenia; with references to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Leonard Woolf, who also found themselves caring for people struggling with mental illness. “A powerful and poignant memoir about parents and children, freedom and responsibility, madness and creativity and what it means to be a carer.”
Avoid the Day: A New Nonfiction in Two Movements by Jay Kirk [July 28, Harper Perennial] Transylvania, Béla Bartók’s folk songs, an eco-tourist cruise in the Arctic … “Avoid the Day is part detective story, part memoir, and part meditation on the meaning of life—all told with a dark pulse of existential horror.” It was Helen Macdonald’s testimonial that drew me to this: it “truly seems to me to push nonfiction memoir as far as it can go.”
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil [Aug. 3, Milkweed Editions] “From beloved, award-winning poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil comes a debut work of nonfiction—a collection of essays about the natural world, and the way its inhabitants can teach, support, and inspire us. … Even in the strange and the unlovely, Nezhukumatathil finds beauty and kinship.” Who could resist that title or cover?
Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland, edited by Kathleen Jamie [Aug. 6, Canongate] Contributors include Amy Liptrot, musician Karine Polwart and Malachy Tallack. “Featuring prose, poetry and photography, this inspiring collection takes us from walking to wild swimming, from red deer to pigeons and wasps, from remote islands to back gardens … writing which is by turns celebratory, radical and political.”
The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World by Roman Krznaric [Aug. 27, W.H. Allen] “Drawing on radical solutions from around the world, Krznaric celebrates the innovators who are reinventing democracy, culture and economics so that we all have the chance to become good ancestors and create a better tomorrow.” I’ve been reading a fair bit around this topic. I got a sneak preview of this one from Krznaric’s Hay Festival talk.
Eat the Buddha: The Story of Modern Tibet through the People of One Town by Barbara Demick [Sept. 3, Granta / July 28, Random House] “Illuminating a culture that has long been romanticized by Westerners as deeply spiritual and peaceful, Demick reveals what it is really like to be a Tibetan in the twenty-first century, trying to preserve one’s culture, faith, and language.” I read her book on North Korea and found it eye-opening. I’ve read a few books about Tibet over the years; it is fascinating.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake [Sept. 3, Bodley Head / May 12, Random House] “Entangled Life is a mind-altering journey into this hidden kingdom of life, and shows that fungi are key to understanding the planet on which we live, and the ways we think, feel and behave.” I like spotting fungi. Yes, yes, the title and cover are amazing, but also the author’s name!! – how could you not want to read this?
Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species by Esther Woolfson [Sept. 3, Granta] “Woolfson considers prehistoric human‒animal interaction and traces the millennia-long evolution of conceptions of the soul and conscience in relation to the animal kingdom, and the consequences of our belief in human superiority.” I’ve read two previous nature books by Woolfson and have done some recent reading around deep time concepts. This is sure to be a thoughtful and nuanced take.
The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary by Melissa Harrison [Nov. 5, Faber & Faber] “Moving from scrappy city verges to ancient, rural Suffolk, where Harrison eventually relocates, this diary—compiled from her beloved “Nature Notebook” column in The Times—maps her joyful engagement with the natural world and demonstrates how we must first learn to see, and then act to preserve, the beauty we have on our doorsteps.” I love seeing her nature finds on Twitter. I think her writing will suit this format.
Which of these do you want to read, too?
What other upcoming 2020 titles are you looking forward to?
I’m averaging four new releases a month: a nicely manageable number. In April I read a memoir about a mother’s dementia, a bizarre little novel about a stuffed aardvark linking two centuries, a history of medicine in graphic novel form, and a sommelier’s memoir.
My top recommendation for the month is:
What We Carry by Maya Shanbhag Lang
Maya Lang’s novel The Sixteenth of June* was one of my top three novels of 2014, so I was eager to read her next book, a forthright memoir of finding herself in the uncomfortable middle (the “sandwich generation”) of three generations of a female family line. Her parents had traveled from India to the USA for her mother’s medical training and ended up staying on permanently after she became a psychiatrist. Lang had always thought of her mother as a superwoman who managed a career alongside parenthood, never asked for help, and reinvented herself through a divorce and a career change.
When Lang gave birth to her own daughter, Zoe, this model of self-sufficiency mocked her when she had postpartum depression and needed to hire a baby nurse. It was in her daughter’s early days, just when she needed her mother’s support the most, that her mother started being unreliable: fearful and forgetful. Gradually it became clear that she had early-onset Alzheimer’s. Lang cared for her mother at home for a year before making the difficult decision to see her settled into a nearby nursing home.
Like Elizabeth Hay’s All Things Consoled, this is an engaging, bittersweet account of obligation, choices and the secrets that sometimes come out when a parent enters a mental decline. I especially liked how Lang frames her experiences around an Indian folktale of a woman who enters a rising river, her child in her arms. She must decide between saving her child or herself. Her mother first told this story soon after Zoe’s birth to acknowledge life’s ambiguity: “Until we are in the river, up to our shoulders—until we are in that position ourselves, we cannot say what the woman will do. We must not judge. That is the lesson of the story. Whatever a woman decides, it is not easy.” The book is a journey of learning not to judge her mother (or herself), of learning to love despite mistakes and personality changes.
*One for me to reread in mid-June!
Published by Dial Press on the 28th. I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
Full disclosure: Maya and I are Facebook friends.
Other April releases to look out for:
Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony
On a scoreboard of the most off-the-wall, zany and fun novels I’ve read, this one would be right up there with Ned Beauman’s Boxer, Beetle and Alex Christofi’s Glass. The two story lines, one contemporary and one set in the 1870s, are linked by a taxidermied aardvark that makes its way from Namibia to the Washington, D.C. suburbs by way of Victorian England.
The aardvark was collected by naturalist Sir Richard Ostlet and stuffed by Titus Downing, his secret lover. Ostlet committed suicide in Africa, but his wife could still sense him walking up and down outside her London home. In the present day, Republican congressman Alexander Paine Wilson, who emulates Ronald Reagan in all things, gets a FedEx delivery of a taxidermied aardvark – an apparent parting gift from Greg Tampico before the latter committed suicide. To keep his gay affair from becoming public knowledge, Wilson decides it’s high time he found himself a trophy wife. But the damned aardvark keeps complicating things in unexpected ways.
A scene where a police officer stops Wilson for texting and driving and finds the stuffed aardvark in the back of his SUV had me laughing out loud (“Enter the aardvark, alight on its mount. Enter the aardvark, claw raised, head covered with a goddamned gourmet $22 dish towel that suddenly looks incredibly suspicious hanging over the head of an aardvark, like it’s an infidel”). History repeats itself amusingly and the aardvark is an entertaining prop, but Wilson is too obviously odious, and having his narrative in the second person doesn’t add anything. This is not a debut novel but reads like one: full of bright ideas, but falling a bit short in the execution.
Published by Doubleday on the 23rd. I won a proof copy in a Twitter giveaway.
Medicine: A Graphic History by Jean-Noël Fabiani
[Illustrated by Philippe Bercovici; translated from the French by Edward Gauvin]
From prehistory to nanotechnology, this is a thorough yet breezy survey of what people have learned about the body and how to treat it. (In approach it reminded me most of another SelfMadeHero graphic novel I reviewed last year, ABC of Typography.) Some specific topics are the discovery of blood circulation, the development of anesthesia, and the history of mental health treatment.
Fabiani, a professor as well as the head of cardiac surgery at Georges Pompidou European Hospital in Paris, focuses on the key moments when ideas became testable theories and when experiments gave groundbreaking results. While he provided the one-page introduction to each chapter and the expository writing at the head of each comic pane, I suspect it was illustrator Philippe Bercovici who added most of the content in the speech bubbles, including plenty of jokes (especially since Fabiani thanks Bercovici for bringing his talent and humor to the project).
This makes for a lighthearted book that contains enough detail so that you feel like you are still getting the full story. Unsurprisingly, I took the most interest in chapters entitled The Great Epidemics and A Few Modern Plagues. I would especially recommend this to teenagers with an interest in medicine.
Published by SelfMadeHero on the 9th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Wine Girl by Victoria James
In 2012, at age 21, Victoria James became America’s youngest certified sommelier. Still in her twenties, she has since worked in multiple Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City and became the only American female to win the Sud de France Sommelier Challenge. But behind all the competition wins, celebrity sightings, and international travel for wine festivals and conferences is a darker story.
This is a tell-all about a toxic restaurant culture of overworked employees and casual sexism. James regularly worked 80-hour weeks in addition to her wine school studies, and suffered multiple sexual assaults. In addition, sexual harassment was common – even something as seemingly harmless as the title epithet a dismissive diner launched at her when he ordered a $650 bottle of wine for his all-male table and then told her it was corked and had to be replaced. “Wine girl” was a slur against her for her age, her gender and her presumed lack of experience, even though by that point she had an encyclopedic knowledge of wine varieties and service.
That incident from the prologue was my favorite part of the book; unfortunately, nothing that came afterwards really lived up to it. The memoir goes deep into James’s dysfunctional upbringing (her parents’ bitter divorce, her mother’s depression, her father’s alcoholism and gambling, her own battle with addictions), which I found I had little interest in. It’s like Educated lite, but with a whiney tone: “I grew up in a household of manipulation and neglect, left to fend for myself.”
For those interested in reading about wine and restaurant culture, I’d recommend Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker and Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (one of my pairings here) instead.
A favorite line: “Like music, the wonders of art, food, and beverage can transcend all boundaries. … I wanted to capture that feeling, the exhilaration of familiarity, and bring people together through wine.”
Published by Fleet on the 16th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
At about this time of year I try to read a handful of books with “love” in the title. I’m currently reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine for the #IMReadalong, and I have one more “love” title towards the end of this post, but it turns out that my focus this year has been more on the kinds of love that tend to get ignored around Valentine’s Day – familial love for one’s ageing parents and grandparents.
Be With: Letters to a Carer by Mike Barnes (2018)
Mike Barnes, a Toronto poet and novelist, has been a primary caregiver for his mother, Mary, in the nine years since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis disease. She grew up on a Saskatchewan farm and is now in her nineties; he’s in his sixties. A bipolar sufferer, Barnes has spent his own fair share of time in hospitals and on disability. He’s moved Mary between care homes four times as her condition has deteriorated. Though he laments her gradual loss of words and awareness of her family, he can still discern instances of her bravery and the beauty of life.
This book of fragments – memories and advice delivered via short letters – was written in between demanding caregiving tasks and is meant to be read in those same gaps. Dementia is one situation in which you should definitely throw money at a problem, Barnes counsels, to secure the best care you can, even round-the-clock nursing help. However, as the title suggests, nothing outweighs simply being there. Your presence, not chiefly to make decisions, but just to sit, listen and place a soothing hand on a forehead, is the greatest gift.
There are many excellent, pithy quotations in this book. Here are a few of my favorites:
“a retreat under fire”
“a passage of exquisite vulnerability”
By your loved one’s side is “Not where things are easy, or satisfactorily achieved, or achievable, or even necessarily pleasant. But where you ought to be, have to be, and are. It brings a peace.”
The goal is “Erring humanely”.
I can imagine this being an invaluable companion for caregivers, to be tucked into a pocket or purse and pulled out for a few moments of relief. On the theme of a parent’s dementia, I’d also recommend Paulette Bates Alden’s book of linked short stories, Unforgettable.
Out now from Myriad Editions. My thanks for the free copy for review.
The Smallest Things: On the enduring power of family: A memoir of tiny dramas by Nick Duerden (2019)
Journalist Nick Duerden always appreciated how his maternal grandparents, Nonna and Nonno, seemed so ordinary and unchanging. Every trip to see them in the Milan suburbs was, comfortingly, the same. He’d muddle along with his meager Italian, and they’d look after him in their usual clucking way. It was only as he reached middle age and realized that his grandparents were undeniably very old – his grandmother is 99 and in a care home at the time of writing – that he realized how lucky he was to still have them in his life and how unlikely it was that they’d be around for much longer.
Duerden compares his small immediate family with his Spanish wife’s large extended one, and his uptight paternal grandparents with the more effusive set. There are also some family secrets still to uncover. I made the mistake of reading a previous nonfiction book of Duerden’s just the week before this one: Get Well Soon (2018), which has a long chapter about his grandparents that told me all I needed to know about them. That’s probably the main reason why this short book struck me as lightweight, though I did ultimately find it a touching tribute, especially to his grandmother. It could make a good Mother’s Day present.
Out today from Elliott & Thompson. My thanks for a proof copy for review.
Love Story by Erich Segal (1970)
This offbeat novella was a bestseller and a successful film. You surely know its most famous line: “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry.” Oliver Barrett IV is a golden boy: his banker father and previous generations of the eminent Barrett family funded various buildings at Harvard, where Oliver is a hockey player in the late 1960s. Jenny Cavilleri, on the other hand, comes from a single-parent Italian-American family in New Jersey. She’s made it to Radcliffe as a harpsichordist, but her father is just a baker; she’d never be considered good enough for the likes of Oliver. But they meet at the Radcliffe library and, sure enough, fall for each other. She calls him “Preppie”; he calls her a bitch. They’re only partially joking. It may be true love against the odds, but it has an expiration date, as we know from the first line: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year old girl who died?”
I wanted to like this more. There’s a pleasing lightness to the style, but because the whole book is from Oliver’s perspective, I felt like Jenny got short shrift: she’s the wise-cracking gal from the block, and then she’s the innocent victim in the hospital bed. Because this is only about 120 pages, there’s not much space in between for her character to be developed. I was somewhat appalled to learn about a 1977 sequel in which Oliver finds a new love.
(Segal’s daughter Francesca is also a novelist (The Innocents).)
Have you read any “love” books, or books about love of any kind, lately?
On Tuesday night I had the chance to see Michel Faber in conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink at Foyles bookstore in London. The topic was grief in literature, and specifically Faber’s book of poems in honor of his late wife, Undying: A Love Story (which I reviewed here in July). Faber had always written occasional poems, he said, “sort of kind of clever” stuff that he would have taken little note of if he encountered it from another author; the only really good ones, he thought, were about illness, based on his time as a nurse. So when there came this huge uprising of poems about Eva’s last illness, he felt they were a more appropriate way of commemorating her life than a novelistic narrative.
Rentzenbrink mentioned two things that particularly struck her: how Eva emerges in the fullness of her personality in the course of these poems, and the fact that the book is not angry. Faber explained that Eva herself was not angry. She did not think of multiple myeloma as her enemy and had no illusions about ‘beating’ cancer; instead, she just tried to achieve the best quality of life and the longest lifespan possible. In fact, she found cancer interesting, Faber recalled: she researched it as much as she could and followed its course with a certain curiosity. He contrasted her experience with that of an acquaintance in the Scottish Highlands who had the same disease and wanted to know nothing about it, leaving it all in the hands of her doctors. Faber believes this ignorance shortened their friend’s life unnecessarily.
Making sure that Eva came through as a real person in the poems was a struggle, Faber confessed. To start with his editors at Canongate, many of whom knew Eva, were frustrated that Undying was mercilessly medical, describing the process and aftermath of cancer treatment. A few poems, then, he wrote as a direct response to that criticism, almost as if ‘on commission’, he said, to infuse the book with more of Eva’s personality.
Only two of the poems were written while Eva was still alive, Faber noted. One was “Nipples,” written at her bedside just 10 days before her death. Eva had dealt with the pain and indignity of her illness admirably, but plasmacytomas – big purple welts all over her skin – truly broke her spirit, he revealed. His poem is a strangely erotic take on these blemishes: “Excited peaks of plasma. … Your flesh is riotous with the pleasure / of predatory cells.”
There’s irony there, and a certain dark humor in many of the rest. “There are so many absurdities when a body is breaking down spectacularly,” Faber said. And yet the last two years of Eva’s life were “incredibly intimate and tender,” as a fiercely independent woman ended up very frail and completely dependent on him as her carer. Likewise, Faber had to shift from creativity to practicality to cope with household tasks plus caregiving.
Cathy Rentzenbrink was the perfect person to interview Faber. She is the author of a bereavement memoir, The Last Act of Love, about her brother’s death after eight years in a vegetative state. Moreover, her mother survived a bout with cancer at the same age as Eva; she was heavily involved with that process through accompanying her to chemotherapy appointments. I was a bit disappointed that Rentzenbrink didn’t get to speak more about her own grief and the experience of crafting a narrative out of it. Faber said he too had envisioned more of a dialogue, but that Rentzenbrink thought it would be inappropriate for her to talk about herself and generously kept the focus on his work instead.
I also would have appreciated more context about grief literature in general, and poetry in particular. Faber did mention that there are many kinds of grief poetry. For instance, Thomas Hardy was still writing poems about his first wife decades after her death. Faber consciously avoided writing elegant, well-formed poetry like some that he’s read; instead he wanted his poems to be raw, direct, even shocking. Contrast that with the rainbows and heavenly visions of much of what’s out there. This came home to me a few weeks ago at my husband’s uncle’s funeral. Three poems were recited in the course of the ceremony, all of them heavily clichéd and unfailingly rhymed. This meant that the speakers ended up using singsong voices. In Faber’s poems, though, end rhymes are rare. I noticed them more, along with the sibilance and internal rhymes, through the emphasis he lent when reading aloud.
Rentzenbrink insisted there is still life to be lived for the grieving. As if to reinforce her point, Faber openly admitted to his relationship with a fellow writer who also lost a longtime partner, Louisa Young, whom he met the year after Eva’s death. He’s aware that this poses a marketing problem: he’s no longer the disconsolate soul in rumpled clothing, barely surviving without his spouse. (Indeed, he looked well put together and hip in his blue leather jacket and bright orange shoes, and his blond mop makes him appear much younger than he is.) Thinking also of a widower friend, Rentzenbrink said that her feeling was “he looked after her for so many years; he can have a little fun now!”
As to Faber’s professional future, he reiterated that he does not plan to write any more novels for adults. All of his fiction is about characters desperate to transcend, he said, and now it’s time for him to do that in his own life. He’s pondered a couple of nonfiction projects about aesthetics and music, but for now his next goal is a YA adventure novel. Whenever plaintive readers beg him for future novels, he cheekily asks whether they’ve read his whole back catalogue – including two collections of short stories, always a hard sell for novel readers. I have six more of Faber’s books to get to myself, so that’s plenty to fuel me in the years ahead. I came away from this event with a greater appreciation for the poems in Undying and a deep respect for a man aware of the seasons of his life, writing and caregiving among them.