The Iceberg by Marion Coutts was my book of the year in 2015. Never have I read an illness narrative which is so poignant, nor a reflection on life which sings with such beauty and sadness. A recent presentation which I had to give on the book is below.
Marion Coutts’ The Iceberg presents not just one story – that of her husband Tom Lubbock’s gradual decline after being diagnosed with a brain tumour in September 2008 – but three; her own, Tom’s, and their young son Ev’s. She writes, ‘We will all be changed by this. He [Ev] the most’.
Tom’s trip to the hospital, which led to his diagnosis, was brought on by a seizure suffered whilst at a friend’s; this was the trigger, the catalyst, for the next two and a bit years, dying, as he did, on the 9th of January 2011. The way in which Tom relays the news of his cancer to Coutts is incredibly matter of fact: ‘Tom stops me. He says he has had a phone call. He has a brain tumour. It is very likely malignant’. This discovery comes on an already momentous day for the couple – that of Ev’s first day away from them at the childminder’s. Initially, she is distraught, breaking down in tears, but she does show strength of character from the outset, acting in what she sees as her familial duty. She realises that she has to adopt the position of proverbial rock for both her husband and son: ‘Right from the start see how I set myself up. Let us see how this thing goes’.
The book was a pre-planned project of sorts. As soon as Coutts realises that something is drastically wrong with her husband, and is faced with his mortality – and, indirectly, her own – she consciously thinks about documenting the process. She opens The Iceberg with the following: ‘A book about the future must be written in advance. Later I won’t have the energy to speak. So I will do it now’. There is no doubt that Tom’s decline will be draining for all involved, and she is already steeling herself for the rocky road ahead. The Iceberg is as much a historical document for she and her son to gain solace from, as it is a manual for those who are watching the suffering of a loved one to live by.
Throughout, the loss of speech and endless rounds of chemotherapy are not happening directly to Coutts; she is a bystander in proceedings – Tom’s crutch, as it were. Throughout, she is remarkably understanding and empathetic, continually thinking of the ways in which certain daily processes will affect Tom, and how she can better his quality of life. This applies both to the daily routine at home, and Tom’s medical care: ‘Normality is gifted in the form of steroids, 2mg daily, and immediately he tightens his grip on language and on the connection of meaning to word’. She tries to maintain a manageable balance between their old, ordinary family life, and the situation which they have been forced into; they still see friends, and go on walks, for instance, which perpetuates a sense of normalcy in the face of the unknown. She is essentially a mediator in a time of what could easily descend into panic. ‘On hearing the news, our instinct is to tell it’, she says. There is rarely any deception here, and the need to be honest – both with one another, and with others who matter to the couple – is paramount.
Coutts’ is a diachronic account; there is historical reach, and a chronological structure. The form which she has chosen to use is not so much a diary format, as an almost academic way of breaking up separate scenes. She deals with one day at a time, but the ‘1.1’ and ‘1.2’ structure does take an element of reality away from the whole. Whilst we do not know the exact dates in which the written accounts took place, the whole is still achingly personal. There is hope here; very early on in the book, she writes: ‘… we carry on in many ways as before but crosswise to what might be expected, we are not plunged into night’.
The couple do, however, become less able to discuss what the future – or lack thereof – holds for them, and for Ev. On page 163, Coutts explains that ‘… there is the Talking Issue, meaning talking about what is going on, articulating the disaster that coagulates around us. Tom promised a while back to begin a conversation with Ev and he has not done this’. How does one communicate to a toddler that soon his beloved father will no longer be in his life? Words, however, still have the power to carry them through their ordeal. Whilst undergoing chemotherapy, Coutts describes the way in which she tenderly whispers poetry ‘with my mouth close to Tom’s ear’ (p168).
The Iceberg is a beautiful, brave, and heartfelt account of a newly-discovered mortality, which shows how one can make every single second in life count for something. Love is at the forefront of every entry, and every decision which the couple make.