Barbellion Prize Shortlist: Book of Hours by Letty McHugh
The Barbellion Prize shortlist, announced yesterday, consists of the short story collection Polluted Sex and the novel Chouette, both of which I’m still keen to read; and two nonfiction works, Hybrid Humans, which I reviewed last year, and Letty McHugh’s hybrid memoir, Book of Hours: An Almanac for the Seasons of the Soul.
I’m saving up tiny joys the way a bear fattens up for the coming winter
A patchwork quilt of ordinary leftover happiness
to keep me warm through the darkest part of the night.
In medieval times, a book of hours was a devotional book that set out the day’s prayers. Usually an illuminated manuscript, it was a precious object for laypeople, and a way of marking time. For Letty McHugh, a Yorkshire-based visual artist who lives with chronic pain and illness, this book of hours is many things: a journal, a scrapbook, an enquiry into the monastic impulse, and an interrogation of the potential meanings of physical suffering.
In April 2020, McHugh experienced a relapse of MS so bad she had to move back in with her parents and was sleeping 20 hours a day. Her sphere had contracted to a single room. If only, she wished, there was “something to concentrate on that wasn’t my unravelling body or the unravelling world.” A Catholic upbringing and childhood holidays in Northumberland made her think about the early Christian hermits and saints like Aidan, Cuthbert and Julian of Norwich who salvaged something from solitude, who out of the privations of monasticism made monuments of faith and, sometimes, written documents, too.
This was the inspiration behind her own book of hours, which intersperses poems and photographs of found objects (wildflowers, animal skulls, sea glass and shells) with biographical sketches of saints, short autobiographical essays about her childhood and career, and musings on faith and pain. Metaphors of magic and outer space contrast with the claustrophobia of “the illness place,” somewhere she knows she’ll return to again and again. Although she knows she will never be perfectly holy or perfectly productive, she is encouraged to know that even those with confined lives (such as Emily Dickinson) can have a rich inner existence. While she resists the desire for a cure, or for a simple meaning to suffering, she bears witness to the fact that creativity can emerge in spite of everything.
I enjoyed spending time with this meticulously crafted and meditative work that engages with the present moment but also the eternal. It’s perfect onward reading for fans of the inaugural Barbellion Prize winner, Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer, and A Still Life by Josie George, a shortlistee from last year.
Book of Hours was self-published with assistance from Disability Arts Online. You can buy a signed copy of the handmade book from her Etsy shop, or read the text for free here.
With thanks to Letty McHugh for sending a free e-copy for review.
This year’s Barbellion Prize judges are Dr Emmeline Burdett, Lynn Buckle (last year’s winner) and scholar Ray Davis. The winner will be announced in February.
The Barbellion Prize 2022 Longlist
This is the third year that the Barbellion Prize will be awarded “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” In the inaugural year I read the entire shortlist, and last year I had already read a few from the longlist and was able to review another two shortlisted titles before the prize announcement.
The 2022 longlist was announced on Friday and contains two books I’d predicted – Hybrid Humans, which I reviewed earlier in the year; and Polluted Sex – and one more that I’d heard of (Chouette), while the rest were new to me. Letty McHugh kindly sent me a PDF copy of her self-published memoir in poems, Book of Hours, and I may be able to get some of the others from the publishers to support the prize through reviews early in the new year.
This list comes from the Prize website. Click on any title for more information. Here we have three (hybrid) memoirs, two autobiographical poetry collections, a novel, a book of short stories, and a biography. Will it be the year for a poetry collection or biography to win?
Head Above Water by Shahd Alshammari (Neem Tree Press)
From the synopsis: “takes us into a space of intimate conversations on illness and society’s stigmatization of disabled bodies. We are invited in to ask the big questions about life, loss, and the place of the other. … Through conversations about women’s identities, bodies, and our journeys through life, we arrive at a politics of love, survival, and hope.”
Recovering Dorothy: The Hidden Life of Dorothy Wordsworth by Polly Atkin (Saraband)
From the synopsis: “Less well known [than her writing and famous brother] … is that Dorothy became seriously ill … and was mostly housebound for the last 20 years of her life. Her personal letters and unpublished journals from this time … [show] a compassionate and creative woman who made her sickroom into a garden … and … grew to call herself a poet.”
Polluted Sex by Lauren Foley (Influx Press)
From the synopsis: “A pregnant woman takes the ferry to the UK. … Two ungendered characters contest the same female body. … Lauren Foley’s debut collection of dramatic short stories … is fearless in its depiction of women’s bodies and sexuality, offering an unflinching window into Irish girl and womanhood.”
163 Days by Hannah Hodgson (Seren Books)
From the synopsis: “Hodgson is an award-winning poet and a palliative care patient. In her compelling debut collection … she uses a panoply of medical, legal, and personal vocabularies to explore what illness, death and dying does to a person as both patient and witness. 163 days is the length of Hannah’s longest period of hospitalisation to date.”
Book of Hours: An Almanac for The Seasons of The Soul by Letty McHugh (Self-published, with support from Disability Arts Online)
From the synopsis: “Over the course of the pandemic, a complication with my chronic illness left me alone in a darkened room for three weeks. I drew comfort from an imagined Book of Hours. … Book of Hours is a collection of lyric essay and poetry exploring what it means to have faith, why we chase suffering and how to take solace in small joys.”
Chouette by Claire Oshetsky (Ecco/HarperCollins)
From the synopsis: “When Chouette is born small and broken-winged, Tiny … [is left] on her own to care for a child who seems more predatory bird than baby. … When she discovers that her husband is on an obsessive and increasingly dangerous quest to find a “cure” for their daughter, Tiny must decide whether Chouette should be raised to fit in or to be herself”.
Hybrid Humans: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Man and Machine by Harry Parker (Profile Books/Wellcome Collection)
My blog review excerpt: “Parker was a captain in the British Army in Afghanistan when an IED took his legs. Now he wears prostheses that make him roughly 12% machine. Pain management, PTSD, phantom limbs, foreign body rejection, and deep brain stimulation are other topics in this wide-ranging study that is at the juncture of the personal and political.”
Year of The Tiger: An Activist’s Life by Alice Wong (Vintage Books/PRH)
From the synopsis: “[With] original essays, previously published work, conversations, graphics, photos, commissioned art by disabled and Asian American artists, and more, Alice uses her unique talent to share an impressionistic scrapbook of her life as an Asian American disabled activist, community organizer, media maker, and dreamer.”
This year’s judges are Dr Emmeline Burdett, Lynn Buckle (last year’s winner) and scholar Ray Davis. The shortlist is due out in January and the winner will be announced in February.
Do any of these nominees appeal to you?