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The Book Trail: From Penelope Lively to Elie Wiesel

I am beginning this Book Trail post with a memoir which I read as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, and which I very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived by Penelope Lively 9780141188324
This autobiography is about growing up in Egypt. It is also an investigation into childhood perception in which the author uses herself and her memories as an insight into how children see and know. It is a look at Eygpt up to, and including, World War II from a small girl’s point of view, which is also, ultimately, a moving and rather sad picture of an isolated and lonely little girl.

 

2. The Italics are Mine by Nina Berberova
This is the autobiography of Nina Berberova, who was born in St Petersburg in 1901, the only child of an Armenian father and a North Russian mother. After the Revolution, and the persecution of intellectuals which followed, she was forced to flee to Paris, where she was to remain for 25 years. There she formed part of a group of literary Russian emigres that included Gorky, Bunin, Svetaeva, Nabokov and Akhmatova, and earned a precarious living as a journalist, barely surviving the hardship and poverty of exile. In 1950 she left France for the United States to begin a new life with no money and no knowledge of English. She is now a retired Professor of Russian Literature at Princeton, and has belatedly been acclaimed for the short novels she wrote in the 1930s and ’40s.

 

251472953. Zoo or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky
While living in exile in Berlin, the formidable literary critic Viktor Shklovsky fell in love with Elsa Triolet. He fell into the habit of sending Elsa several letters a day, a situation she accepted under one condition: he was forbidden to write about love. Zoo, or Letters Not about Love is an epistolary novel born of this constraint, and although the brilliant and playful letters contained here cover everything from observations about contemporary German and Russian life to theories of art and literature, nonetheless every one of them is indirectly dedicated to the one topic they are all required to avoid: their author’s own unrequited love.

 

4. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.

 

5. Vain Art of the Fugue by Dumitru Tepeneag 759968
Clutching a bouquet of flowers, hurrying to catch his bus, and arguing with the driver once he’s on, a man rushes to a train station platform to meet a woman. This sequence of events occurs and recurs in remarkably different variations in Vain Art of the Fugue.  In one version, the bus driver ignores the traffic signals and is killed in the ensuing crash. In another, the protagonist is thrown off the bus, and as he chases after it, a crowd of strangers joins him in the pursuit.  As the book unfolds, the protagonist, his lovers, and the people he meets become increasingly vivid and complex figures in the crowded Bucharest cityscape. Themes, conflicts, and characters interweave and overlap, creating a book that is at once chaotic and perfectly composed.

 

6. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.

 

48109717. Little Fingers by Filip Florian
In a little town in Romania, a mass grave is discovered near the excavations of a Roman fort. Are the dead the victims of a medieval plague or, perhaps, of a Communist firing squad? And why are finger bones disappearing from the pit each night? Petrus, a young archaeologist, decides to do some investigating of his own.   Meanwhile, an Orthodox monk in the surrounding mountains stumbles into history when he becomes the father confessor of a partisan bent on bringing down the government, one handmade grenade and one derailed train at a time. Not to mention a team of Argentinean forensic anthropologists who arrive in town in a cloud of rock music, shredded jeans, and tequila.   Florian has packed real history, a religious pilgrimage, a criminal investigation, a recipe for roast pigeon, and a love story into two hundred truly remarkable pages.

 

8. The Time of the Uprooted by Elie Wiesel
Gamaliel Friedman is only a child when his family flees Czechoslovakia in 1939 for the relative safety of Hungary. For him, it will be the beginning of a life of rootlessness, disguise, and longing. Five years later, in desperation, Gamaliel’s parents entrust him to a young Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. With his Jewish identity hidden, he survives the war, but in 1956, to escape the stranglehold of communism, he leaves Budapest after painfully parting with Ilonka.  He settles in Vienna, then Paris, and finally, after a failed marriage, in New York, where he works as a ghostwriter, living through the lives of others. Eventually, he falls in with a group of exiles: a Spanish Civil War veteran, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, a victim of Stalinism, a former Israeli intelligence agent, and a rabbi—a mystic whose belief in the potential for grace in everyday life powerfully counters Gamaliel’s feelings of loss and dispossession. When Gamaliel is asked to help draw out an elderly, disfigured Hungarian woman who is barely able to communicate but who may be his beloved Ilonka, he begins to understand that a real life in the present is possible only if he will reconcile with his past.

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any been added to your list?

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‘Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived’ by Penelope Lively ****

I have been wanting to read Penelope Lively’s childhood memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda, for such a long time, and it was thus one of my first choices on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge list.  I have read and enjoyed several of Lively’s novels in the past, and was keen to learn about the woman herself.  Where better to start than with her own memories of her childhood, lived in comfort in Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s?

9780141188324Almost every review on the Penguin paperback edition which I purchased spoke of how ’emotive’ Lively’s memoir is.  The Washington Times writes: ‘She sees herself with clarity as both child and adult, a rare accomplishment indeed’.  The Times believes her autobiography to be: ‘Unsentimental yet so vividly evocative that you can smell the dung, the jacaranda and the oleander.  It offers potent glimpses of British colonial life…  The result is a wise, colourful and touching tale.’

In her modest preface, Lively writes: ‘My childhood is no more – or less – interesting than anyone else’s.  It has two particularities.  One is that I was a product of one society but was learning how to perceive the world in the ambience of a quite different culture.  I grew up English, in Egypt.  The other is that I was cared for by someone who was not my mother, and that it was a childhood which came to an abrupt and traumatic end.’  Indeed, after living all of her early life in Egypt, and most of it just outside Cairo, Lively had to move to England after the Second World War, following the divorce of her parents; to the young Penelope, they are ‘peripheral figures… for whom I felt an interested regard but no intense commitment’.  Of course, her nurse, Lucy, who is variously described as ‘the centre of my universe’, is not part of her new life.

Lively’s aim in Oleander, Jacaranda was to ‘recover something of the anarchic vision of childhood – in so far as any of us can do such a thing – and use this as the vehicle for a reflection on the way in which children perceive.’  Whilst she recognises that her child and adult selves are linked in many ways, she is able to separate them for the purposes of her memoir.  She writes: ‘As, writing this, I think with equal wonder of that irretrievable child, and of the eerie relationship between her mind and mine.  She is myself, but a self which is unreachable except by means of such miraculously surviving moments of being: the action within.’

At the forefront of her exploration into childhood is the untrustworthy element of memory: ‘One of the problems with this assemblage of slides in the head is that they cannot be sorted chronologically.  All habits are geared towards the linear, the sequential, but memory refuses such orderliness.’  With this constantly in her mind, Lively presents both her recollections, and the historical facts, of spending her formative years in such a turbulent and fascinating period, and a place so different from the England that she would later call home.

The descriptions in Oleander, Jacaranda are sumptuous.  When talking of her daily routine, for example, she writes: ‘The daily walks with Lucy are merged now into one single acute recollection, in which the whole thing hangs suspended in vibrant detail – the mimosa and the naked leaping children and the grey mud-caked threatening spectres of the gamooses.  The pink and blue and lime green of children’s clothes, the white of galabiyas, the black humps of squatting women.’  Lively’s observations of her young self feel both thorough and beautifully handled: ‘No thought at all here, just observation – the young child’s ability to focus entirely on the moment, to direct attention upon the here and now, without the intrusion of reflection or of anticipation.  It is also the Wordsworthian version of the physical world: the splendour in the grass.  And, especially, Virginia Woolf’s creation of the child’s eye view.  A way of seeing that is almost lost in adult life.’

Throughout Oleander, Jacaranda, Lively explores our capacities for recollection.  Her memoir is one which feels balanced and measured from its opening page.  There are few moments of drama, or melodrama; things happen which make a great impression on Lively as a child, but the importance of the everyday shines through.  Lively’s voice is charming and beguiling.  It is fascinating to see those moments where her childhood memories and adult eyes meet, particularly when Lively discusses her return to Egypt in the 1980s.  Oleander, Jacaranda is honest, warm, and intelligent.  Lively somehow manages to make a very specific period of her life feel timeless in her depictions, and in consequence, her memoir of childhood is a joy to read.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Road Beneath My Feet’ by Frank Turner ***

First published in March 2015

I’m not going to lie. When the postman delivered a review copy of Frank Turner’s The Road Beneath My Feet to me two weeks before its publication date, I was rather excited (to the point of almost squealing). I have been a fan of Turner’s music for a good few years now, and have seen him live close to a dozen times. I was also at the sellout Wembley gig which he charts as the pinnacle of his career to date. I have always thought that Turner – and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame – would write excellent books. Yes – it is fair to say that my excitement over this book was tangible.

9781472222039The Road Beneath My Feet presents, says its blurb, ‘a searingly honest and brilliantly written account of Frank Turner’s journey from the pub circuit to selling out Wembley Arena’. The premise of the book poses instant appeal for all Turner fans (of which there are many): ‘Told through his tour reminiscences this is the blisteringly honest story of Frank’s career from drug-fuelled house parties and the grimy club scene to filling out arenas, fans roaring every word back at him. But more than that, it is an intimate account of what it’s like to spend your life constantly on the road, sleeping on floors, invariably jet lagged, all for the love of playing live music’.

After Frank Turner’s last gig as frontman with his hardcore band Million Dead in 2005, he returned to his Hampshire hometown, ‘jaded and hungover’, with no plans for the future. All he knew is that he wanted to continue to play music. Rather aptly, the book begins with this juncture in his career: ‘It was the defining experience of my late adolescence, my early twenties – it was my formative musical experience. But we were also just another jobbing underground hardcore band that made some small ripples and fell apart’.

In his Introduction/Disclaimer, Turner muses about his reasoning for publishing his biography, something which he largely attributes to his admiration of Black Flag’s Henry Rollins: ‘You hold in your hands a book, a book that I wrote, all by myself… One reason I was not expecting this book to exist is that I’m not generally much keen on autobiography as a genre. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this – Ben Franklin for example, or Churchill’s – but I feel like you either need to have won a war or be knocking on death’s door to justify the exercise… It was also suggested that the book need not be an autobiography in the strict sense, starting with birth and ending in the nursing home; it could be a specific set of recollections about a certain period of time’. Each of Turner’s recollections is split into a particular numbered show, of which he has kept a record since he started performing. This record has actually been included at the end of the book, which is a lovely touch.

In some ways, Turner comes across as rather a humbled man: ‘I’m aware, painfully so, that I’m incredibly fortunate to do what I do for a living; I’m also not under the impression that it’s death-shakingly significant, in the grand scheme of things. Hopefully I don’t come off as overly self-pitying or self-important’.

As with his lyrics, Turner’s prose writing is intelligent, and one gets the impression that a lot of thought has been put into many of his sentences: ‘Like most youthful, Arcadian ideals, the bald facts of the denouement are mundane rather than monumental’. In places, the book is rather amusing and filled with Turner’s dry humour: ‘There’s a bleak, failed romanticism to the idea Valentine’s Day alone in Ipswich’, for example. He also recounts amusing episodes; in Russia, for instance, after a few too many drinks, the following happens: ‘On hearing that I had been left alone by my compadre, I jumped to my feet, rushed into the club, leaped up on to the bar and shouted “Communist bastards! I’ll fight you all!” while rather pathetically waving a plastic cup’. The characters whom he meets along the way have been vividly evoked; Karlis, for example, ‘a formidable, hulking Latvian’ whose ‘favourite king was Charles I and [who] liked trampolining very much, but, alarmingly, was minded to shoot gypsies with his “double-barrelled shooting gun”.’

In The Road Beneath My Feet, one can see quite clearly how Turner’s style, both musically and as a performer, has evolved over time: ‘I felt like I was pretty much done with (post-) hardcore as a style… After years of self-conscious musical awkwardness and trying to be dark and angular all the time, hearing simple chords and simple words was immensely refreshing and I felt like the music told me deeper truths… I’m always more interested in music when it breaks out of the mould and becomes a dialogue, an interaction, rather than just a lecture from “artist” to “punter”‘. The positives as well as the negatives have been considered throughout, from habitual drug use and sleeping on uncomfortable sofas, to barely scraping together enough money to eat each night. Turner relates his experiences to the songs which they influenced: ‘It’s reasonably fair to say that Sleep is For the Week is, in some senses, an album about doing too much cocaine’.

There is a slightly repetitive air to the whole, but that is to be expected due to the nature of the book. The format which has been used works well, and in consequence, The Road Beneath My Feet is eminently readable. There is a ‘woe-is-me’ air which pervades at times, but again, one can easily believe that this goes with the territory. Sadly, parts of the book do feel like something of a plugging exercise in places, but overall, it is a well written and well-developed account of how to make it the hard way in the music industry, and it is sure to captivate and satisfy his fans.

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‘The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial’ by Maggie Nelson ****

I was supposed to be reading established poet and non-fiction author Maggie Nelson’s  The Argonauts for a book club I’m a member of, but unable as I was to find a copy, I plumped for The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial instead.  This piece of extended non-fiction, which deals with the aftermath of her aunt’s unsolved murder in the late sixties, and new evidence pointing to her killer, was first published in 2007.  Of all of Nelson’s books, this was the one which appealed to me the most.

The blurb piqued my interest immediately when browsing for Nelson’s books on my local library catalogue.  It reads: ‘After asking for a lift to her hometown for spring break, Jane Mixer, a first-year law student at the University of Michigan, was brutally murdered in 1969; her body was found the next day, a few miles away from campus.’  Jane was shot twice in the head, and then ‘strangled viciously with a stocking that did not belong to her’.  Nelson, whose aunt was killed before she was born, uses The Red Parts to trace her aunt’s death, as well as the trial which took place thirty-five years afterwards.  Jane’s case was reopened in 2004 ‘after a DNA match identified a new suspect, who would soon be arrested and tried.’9781784705794

‘Resurrecting her interior world during the trial – in all its horror, grief, obsession, recklessness, scepticism and downright confusion – Maggie Nelson has produced a work of profound integrity and, in its subtle indeterminacy, deadly moral precision.’   The Red Parts has been hailed by various critics as ‘remarkable’, ‘Didion-esque’, and a ‘darkly intelligent page-turner’, which gives ‘the sense that the writer is writing for her life’, as well as Jane’s.

Within her book, Nelson is candid from the very beginning.  She writes of the process of putting such a painful familial past down on paper, and how the trial and its evidence impacted upon her, her sister, and her mother, Jane’s elder sister.   In her preface, Nelson calls the book ‘a peculiar, pressurized meditation on time’s relation to violence’.  She goes on to say: ‘One aim I had while writing was to allow the events of the trial, the events of my childhood, the events of Jane’s murder, and the act of writing to share a single spatial and temporal moment.’

Initially, police attributed Jane’s murder to a man who had killed many other young girls in what were collectively called the ‘Michigan Murders’.  The new evidence found, however, attributed her murder to someone else entirely, a retired nurse.   When Nelson sees him on trial, she writes: ‘I feel disoriented too.  Where I imagined I might find the “face of evil,” I am finding the face of Elmer Fudd.’  She goes on to describe the difficulty which she has in coming to terms with what he may have done: ‘I watch the light and I watch his hands and I try to imagine them around the trigger of a gun, I try to imagine them strangling someone.  Strangling Jane.  I know this kind of imagining is useless and awful.  I wonder how I’d feel if I imagined it over and over again and later found out that he didn’t do it.’

The Red Parts is very brave and directly honest; it is as objective as it can be, and whilst emotional at times, it does not read – as one imagines it so easily could have done – as a piece of overblown melodrama on the part of the family.  She talks openly about all of the grief in her life, from her father’s death, to seeing her boyfriend overdose more than once.  The Red Parts is a multilayered and well thought through work, which merges biography and autobiography in a seamless and interesting manner.  Nelson’s writing is engaging from the very beginning, and is sure to appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the likes of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Outrun’ by Amy Liptrot ****

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was my choice for the June edition of the Chai and Sheep Book Club.  I first found out about it after seeing a wonderful review, complete with sublime photographs of Orkney, on dovegreyreader’s blog.  Olivia Laing, whose own work I am incidentally desperate to get to, calls it ‘astonishingly beautiful… a luminous, life-affirming book’.

The Outrun is a memoir of Amy Liptrot’s struggles with alcohol when she moves, first to Edinburgh as a student, and then to London: ‘At eighteen I couldn’t wait to leave…  I wanted comfort, glamour and to be at the centre of things’.  In The Outrun, Liptrot writes that essentially, relocating back to her home island rescues her.  She ‘is drawn back to the Outrun on the sheep farm where she grew up.  Approaching the land that was once home, memories of her childhood merge with the recent events that have set her on this journey’.  She groups herself together with others she grew up with: ‘It’s a push and pull factor to many young people from the islands.  We ended up back here again and again, washed back, like the inevitable tide’.
9781782115472

Geographically, Orkney is the collective name for a group of seventy islands, many of them uninhabited, to the north of Scotland.  The whole area is ‘sea-scarred and wind-battered’.  As one would expect, The Outrun is filled with fascinating details regarding the history of the islands; these have been wonderfully interspersed with Liptrot’s own memories.  She details how paramount the weather is on such an exposed island group: ‘Sometimes the light picks out in fine detail the hills of Hoy, another island to the south beyond the headland, and on other days they disappear completely in the haar’.  The Outrun itself is wonderfully evoked: ‘The Outrun is tucked away behind a low hill and beside the coast, and in the right spot you can’t see any houses or be seen from the road.  Dad told me that when he was high, in a manic phase, he had slept out here.’

The prologue details Liptrot’s birth, and her father’s simultaneous relapse: ‘As I arrive into this island world, my father is taken outside of it.  My birth, three weeks early, has brought on a manic episode’.  As well as speaking about her present, Liptrot is, understandably, focused upon the past: ‘The rumblings of mental illness under my life were amplified by the presence of my mother’s extreme religion and by the landscape I was born into, the continual, perceptible crashing of the sea at the edges’.  This memoir is an incredibly honest one; I felt as though Liptrot had a no-holds-barred approach to her past.  She writes with such clarity, which really shows the hopelessness of her previous situation: ‘The alcohol I’d been pouring into myself for years was like the repeated action of the waves on the cliffs and it was beginning to cause physical damage.  Something was crumbling deep within my nervous system and shook my body in powerful pulses to the extent that I was frozen and drooling, until they eased off enough for me to pour another drink or rejoin the party’.

The disparities between city and island life have been so well evoked: ‘Another Sunday muffled and hungover in bed, makeup oily in my eyes, doors slamming somewhere, while up north the waves still curled dark and endless, and the aurora lit up the sky’.  Liptrot weaves this in with the panic mode which her drinking sends her into.  Alcohol becomes a constant in her life rather quickly, and she begins to suffer from memory lapses and mood swings.  She wakes with mysterious bruises all over her body; she is the victim of a crime.  In London, she describes some rather scary episodes: ‘I was dumbfounded and unable to make decisions about where to go, whom to see or what opinion to hold, filling the void with alcohol and anxiety’.  The London period is a gritty one for Liptrot, fraught with drugs, dependency and danger.

Aesthetically, this book is stunning, from its beautiful cover to its lovely illustrated maps.  A glossary has been included too, which is incredibly beneficial for non-Orcadian speakers such as myself; it details spellbinding words and terms, such as ‘clapshot’ (mixed neeps and tatties), ‘haar’ (sea fog), and ‘grimlins’ (a midsummer night’s sky).  Liptrot’s story has been so wonderfully – and often harrowingly – evoked that it will linger with the reader long after the final page has been read.  The Outrun is a very honest and very well written memoir, which has made me want to travel to Orkney as soon as I possibly can – perhaps an inevitable consequence of reading it.

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Two Non-Fiction Reviews: ‘It’s Not Yet Dark’ and ‘The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner’

It’s Not Yet Dark by Simon Fitzmaurice **** 22340465
The very fact that It’s Not Yet Dark exists is phenomenal, when one thinks about it; the entirety was written using an eye computer.  In his memoir, Simon Fitzmaurice charts his decline after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a rare form of neurological disease, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Motor Neurone Disease.

Fitzmaurice’s writing is beautiful, and he goes back and forth in time throughout, creating a wonderfully lucid, and incredibly touching reflection of a life well lived.  Never does one get the impression that Fitzmaurice is pitying himself; rather, he demonstrates that he has so much to live for.  It’s Not Yet Dark is heartfelt and brave, and really makes you think about what it means to be alive.  A lovely, thoughtful, poignant, and achingly sad musing upon life, and how drastically it can change.

 

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman ****
9781853818851“One need not write in a diary what one is to remember for ever.” (22nd September 1930)

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman, has been pared down from 38 distinctive diaries found after Townsend Warner’s death.  I adore what I have read of Townsend Warner’s prose to date (Lolly Willowes is a firm favourite of mine), and hoped that I would feel just the same when reading about her own life.

The original diaries span a fifty-year period, beginning in 1927, and stretching to 1972; throughout, Townsend Warner unsurprisingly writes about an England which is dated and archaic, but still ultimately recognisable.  Her writing is sometimes quite matter-of-fact, but at others it is beautifully poetic.  It begins to almost sparkle when her enduring relationship with Valentine Ackland is at first revealed; it feels almost as though a new Townsend Warner has been revealed.  She talks less about her writing than I had anticipated; she mentions her work largely in passing, and not all that often.

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner is a lovely tome to dip in and out of.  Each entry is rich and deftly crafted.  There is a frankness here which seems surprising when one considers the dates in which the entries were written; in the late 1920s, for instance, Townsend Warner mentions masturbating, and ‘rollicking in bed’ with her female lover, Valentine.  Her diaries provide a lens into the life of a fascinating woman, who was really rather ahead of her time.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Iceberg’ by Marion Coutts *****

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.

Winner_-_The_Icebe_3285478fMarion 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-tom-and-ev-011

Tom Lubbock and Ev on Hampstead Heath, December 2008 (Photograph by Marion Coutts)

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.

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