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‘Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf’ by Mitchell Leaska *****

Mitchell Leaska’s Granite and Rainbow had been on my to-read shelf for a couple of months before I picked it up in early December, in part as PhD research, and in part as an enjoyable read.  Leaska’s wise and intelligent introduction to the volume fits perfectly; it sets out what he is aiming to achieve with his biography, recognising that he is one of many who has chosen to tackle Woolf as Woman and Writer proper.

9780374166595Leaska blends details about Woolf’s life, beginning with in-depth accounts of her parents, and blends in a smattering of criticism about all of her books, as well as detailing what inspired her to write each distinct piece.  He does not take her short stories into account much of the time, and even leaves some of her essays by the wayside, but discussing everything that Woolf ever wrote would be rather a mean feat, and any omissions do not have a great impact on the work as a whole.  The elements of social and political history which Leaska has made use of are fitting, and give a wider context to Woolf’s work and decisions.

One reviewer argues that Leaska makes many unsubstantiated claims throughout Granite and Rainbow; I, however, did not find this to be the case.  Yes, he discusses ambiguities in her prose, but many biographers make claims with regard to what they believe the author was driving at in writing X, or amending Y.  Of course, in every biography there is going to be an element of bias, but Leaska has written rather impartially about his subject.  It is clear that he admires her and his work, but his approach to her as a woman is one of academic understanding.

I found Leaska’s writing really quite lovely: ‘The world that mattered to Virginia Woolf was the world of emotional and sensory experience eddying endlessly in atmosphere, of the mind, in twilit regions of memory where past and present merge and blur.  It was a world where houses and rooms are furnished not with carpets and curtains but with reminiscence and feeling.  This alone was real.  It was not concerned with what life was like, but more with what the actual experience of living felt like’.   The entirety of the book has a wonderful consistency to it too.

Granite and Rainbow did not add much to my understanding of Woolf as a person, but it certainly went into more far depth than the majority of other biographies with her extramarital relationships – with Vita Sackville-West, for instance.  If I was coming to Woolf as someone who had merely read her work and wanted to know more about her as a person in the real world, I would have found Leaska’s book endlessly fascinating.  As it is, I have been studying Woolf for quite a while up to this point and, as one might expect, biographies do tend to repeat themselves from tome to tome.

That said, Leaska’s biography is something else entirely, and deserves to be revered in the same way as Hermione Lee’s work about Woolf; it is just as thorough, and has a wonderful clarity to it.  In Granite and Rainbow, Leaska has produced a fantastic biography which is authoritative and masterfully written, and it certainly deserves more attention than it seems to have received to date.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Four)

Here is the penultimate post of this week’s Really Underrated Books series.  As ever, I hope something here piques your interest, or inspires you to go and find some underrated books of your own!

1. Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo 9613541
Monty and Ada are old friends. They worked together on the frontline in Belgium, where Monty was a nurse and Ada drove ambulances – like the devil. And now, Bleakly Hall hydropathic has brought them together again.  Monty has just arrived to look after the gouty residents – there to take the Hall’s curative waters via nozzle, douche and jet – and Ada is the maid and driver. For all those at Bleakly, the end of the Great War has brought changes. Not all of them good.  Monty has a score to settle with the elusive Captain Foxley; Ada misses her wartime sense of purpose; the Blackwood brothers must reinvigorate Bleakly for a new era; Foxley has his own particular ways of keeping his ghosts at bay. But with the crumbling, rumbling hydropathic threatening to blow its top, what will become of the folk thrown together in its bilious embrace?  This wonderfully original novel brings together an irresistible cast of characters – including Bleakly Hall itself – in the wake of one of history’s great tragedies. To powerful effect, it combines fizzing comedy with a deeply moving look at the aftermath of war.

 

2. Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage by Glyn Williams
The elusive dream of locating the Northwest Passage—an ocean route over the top of North America that promised a shortcut to the fabulous wealth of Asia—obsessed explorers for centuries. While global warming has brought several such routes into existence, until recently these channels were hopelessly choked by impassible ice. Voyagers faced unimaginable horrors—entire ships crushed, mass starvation, disabling frostbite, even cannibalism—in pursuit of a futile goal. In Arctic Labyrinth, Glyn Williams charts the entire sweep of this extraordinary history, from the tiny, woefully equipped vessels of the first Tudor expeditions to the twentieth-century ventures that finally opened the Passage. Williams’s thrilling narrative delves into private letters and journals to expose the gritty reality behind the often self-serving accounts of those in charge. An important work of maritime history and exploration—and as exciting a tale of heroism and fortitude as readers will find—Arctic Labyrinth is also a remarkable study in human delusion.

 

33742493. A School in South Uist: Reminiscences of a Hebridean Schoolmaster, 1890-1913 by F.G. Rea
These are the memories of Frederick Rea, an English teacher who became headmaster of Garrynamonie School in South Uist in the 1890s. At that time, the Hebrides were as remote and forbidding to mainlanders as the Antarctic is to us today, and South Uist was one of the poorer districts. Roads were often no more than rough tracks across the mountain moorland or over the storm-swept machair. His Gaelic-speaking pupils were often frozen and starving, and fever epidemics were frequent. Rea’s memoirs show how he strove to meet these difficulties. His pupils remember him as a sincere, conscientious man and an excellent teacher. This book also reveals his keen powers of observation, and his interest in the unfamiliar scenes and events he witnessed and recorded. His lack of city comforts was more that compensated for by the wonders of the natural world and the uncommon kindness and generosity of the islanders. Dr. Rea treasured his memories of South Uist for the rest of his life, and his love and respect for the islands is wonderfully conveyed in this vivid testament.

 

4. Painted Shadow by Carole Seymour-Jones
By the time she was committed to an asylum in 1938, five years after T. S. Eliot deserted her, Vivienne Eliot was a lonely, distraught figure. Shunned by literary London, she was the “neurotic” wife whom Eliot had left behind. In The Family Reunion, he described a wife who was a “restless shivering painted shadow,” and so she had become: a phantomlike shape on the fringe of Eliot’s life, written out of his biography and literary history.  This astonishing portrait of Vivienne Eliot, first wife of poet T.S. Eliot, gives a voice to the woman who, for seventeen years, had shared a unique literary partnership with Eliot but who was scapegoated for the failure of the marriage and all but obliterated from historical record. In so doing, Painted Shadow opens the way to a new understanding of Eliot’s poetry.  Vivienne longed to tell her whole story; she wrote in her diary: “You who in later years will read these very words of mine will be able to trace a true history of this epoch.” She believed (as did Virginia Woolf) that she was Eliot’s muse, the woman through whom he transmuted life into art. Yet Vivienne knew the secrets of his separate and secret life — which contributed to her own deepening hysteria, drug addiction, and final abandonment: the tragedy of a marriage that paired a repressed yet sensual man with an extroverted woman who longed for a full sexual relationship with her husband.  Out of this emotional turbulence came one of the most important English poems of the twentieth century: The Waste Land, which Carole Seymour-Jones convincingly shows cannot be fully understood without reference to the relationship of the poet and his first wife. Drawing on papers both privately owned and in university library archives and, most importantly, on Vivienne Eliot’s own journals left to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Carole Seymour-Jones uses many hitherto unpublished sources and opens the way to a new understanding of Eliot’s poetry.

 

5. The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai by Han Bangwing 407756
Desire, virtue, courtesans (also known as sing-song girls), and the denizens of Shanghai’s pleasure quarters are just some of the elements that constitute Han Bangqing’s extraordinary novel of late imperial China. Han’s richly textured, panoramic view of late-nineteenth-century Shanghai follows a range of characters from beautiful sing-song girls to lower-class prostitutes and from men in positions of social authority to criminals and ambitious young men recently arrived from the country. Considered one of the greatest works of Chinese fiction, The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai is now available for the first time in English.

 

6. Once Upon a Time by John Barth
From master storyteller and National Book Award winner John Barth comes a bravura performance: a memoir wrapped in a novel and launched on a sea voyage. A cutter-rigged sloop sets sail for an end-of-season cruise down into the “Chesapeake Triangle.” Our captain: a middle-aged writer of some repute. The sole crewmate: his lover, friend, editor, and wife. The journey turns out to be not the modest three-day cruise it at first seems. As we sail through sun and storm, our skipper spins (and is spun by) the Story of His Life – an operatic saga that’s part Verdi, part Puccini, and more than a dollop of bouffe, a compound narrative voyaging through the imagination. Crisscrossing the past, mixing memory with desire, our narrator navigates among the waypoints of his life, beguiling us with tales of adventure and despair, love and marriage, selves and counterselves, aging and sailing, teaching and writing – steering always by the polestar of Vocation, the storyteller’s call.

 

2684457. The Butcher’s Wife and Other Stories by Li Ang
Li Ang’s highly charged fiction has made her one of the most widely known Taiwanese authors of her time. This new anthology begins with the internationally acclaimed “The Butcher’s Wife,” a novella that evoked shock and outrage in Taiwan when it first appeared in 1983. The shorter stories that follow range from Li Ang’s first story, “Flower Season” (1968), through “A Love Letter Never Sent” (1986), and include stories that are erotic, thought provoking, and cautionary.

 

8. The Tower of Glass by Ivan Angelo
The five interlocking stories in The Tower Of Glass create a singular, powerful account of a nation in turmoil – and a prophetic warning about an oppressive government’s need to control not just the society but the mind. Through symbolism, wry humour, and outrageous sexual frankness, Ivan Angelo tells of businessmen and whores, poor working people and Death Squads, truth and illusion, and methods of political manipulation and terror. From the gritty, bawdy story of “Bete the Streetwalker” to the Kafkaesque portrait of a prison made of glass, the fictional pieces demonstrate Angelo’s masterful wordplay, and his ability to take formal and structural risks without a false step.

 

9. What’s Become of Waring by Anthony Powell 6977196
This fascinating catalog of the comic relates the ironic and ludicrous adventures of a noted (but mysterious) English travel-book writer whose reported “death” throws the London literary world into a tizzy.’

 

10. Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure by Joseph Jay Deiss
A vivid portrayal of life in Pompeii’s sister city, this book includes a detailed description of the ancient Villa dei Papiri, on which the present Getty Museum in Malibu is modeled.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Two)

The second part in this installment of Really Underrated Books is here!  Like me, I hope you are intrigued by some of the titles below.  Again, all of these books have less than 500 ratings on Goodreads (in fact, many of them fall below the 100 mark), and there are some surprisingly well-known authors upon it.

1. Subtly Worded by Teffi
Teffi’s genius with the short form made her a literary star in pre-revolutionary Russia, beloved by Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin alike. These stories, taken from the whole of her career, show the full range of her gifts. Extremely funny-a wry, scathing observer of society-she is also capable, as capable even as Chekhov, of miraculous subtlety and depth of character.  There are stories here from her own life (as a child, going to meet Tolstoy to plead for the life of War and Peace’s Prince Bolkonsky, or, much later, her strange, charged meetings with the already-legendary Rasputin). There are stories of émigré society, its members held together by mutual repulsion. There are stories of people misunderstanding each other or misrepresenting themselves. And throughout there is a sly, sardonic wit and a deep, compelling intelligence.

 

97801401023902. Pack of Cards and Other Stories by Penelope Lively
In Pack of Cards, Penelope Lively introduces the reader to slivers of the everyday world that are not always open to observation, as she delves into the minutiae of her characters’ lives. Whether she writes about a widow on a visit to Russia, a small boy’s consignment to boarding school, or an agoraphobic housewife, Penelope Lively takes the reader past the closed curtains, through the locked door, into a world that seems at first mundane and then at second glance, proves to be uniquely memorable.

 

3. Death in Leamington by David Smith
Death in Leamington is more than a crime story; it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Set in the genteel Regency town of Royal Leamington Spa, the murder of an elderly foreign visitor sets off an intricate chain of events, surprising literary encounters and one too many unexplained and gruesome deaths. Inspector Hunter and his new assistant DC Penny Dore race to solve the murders, but as the body count mounts and each new lead evaporates; Hunter becomes more and more convinced that there are darker forces involved.   Death in Leamington will appeal both to those who enjoy solving a crime mystery and those with an interest in history, art and music. The story is a celebration of the literary and folk heritage of this elegant Warwickshire town, incorporating many of the characters from its history, and a few literary ghosts from its past, including quotations from works as diverse as The Faerie Queene, The Scarlett Leter, Alice in Wonderland and even Shakespeare’s Queen Mab puts in an appearance.

 

4. Sleepyhead Assassins by Mindy Nettifee 1170236
By turns raunchy, vulnerable, youthful and wise, Mindy Nettifee has been a mainstay of the Southern California poetry scene for the last decade, and she makes her full-length book debut with this edgy collection.

 

5. A Farm Under a Lake by Martha Bergman
Home health care nurse Janet Hawn agrees to drive her latest client, a silent Alzheimer’s patient named May, from Green Bay, Wisconsin to her daughter’s house in northern Illinois. Janet and her husband Jack, an out-of-work salesman, grew up on neighboring farms in Illinois, and on the long drive through familiar territory, Janet reflects back on her childhood and courtship and tries to figure out where her life took a wrong turn.

 

10418556. Out of the Woodshed: A Biography of Stella Gibbons by Reggie Oliver
‘ Born into an Irish family in Hampstead where she lived for most of her life, Stella Gibbons is probably best remembered for her book Cold Comfort Farm. Written by her nephew, this biography of the novelist and poet draws on her personal papers including two unpublished novels.’

 

7. Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond, edited by Tina Chang
Language for a New Century celebrates the artistic and cultural forces flourishing today in the East, bringing together an unprecedented selection of works by South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian poets as well as poets living in the Diaspora. Some poets, such as Bei Dao and Mahmoud Darwish, are acclaimed worldwide, but many more will be new to the reader. The collection includes 400 unique voices—political and apolitical, monastic and erotic—that represent a wider artistic movement that challenges thousand-year-old traditions, broadening our notion of contemporary literature. Each section of the anthology—organized by theme rather than by national affiliation—is preceded by a personal essay from the editors that introduces the poetry and exhorts readers to examine their own identities in light of these powerful poems. In an age of violence and terrorism, often predicated by cultural ignorance, this anthology is a bold declaration of shared humanity and devotion to the transformative power of art.

 

8. My Buried Life by Doreen Finn 25473286
What happens when you no longer recognise the person you have become?   Eva has managed to spend her twenties successfully hiding from herself in New York.  Attempting to write, but really only writing her epitaph, she returns to Ireland to confront the past that has made her what she is.  In prose that is hauntingly beautiful and delicate, Doreen Finn explores a truly complex and fascinating character with deft style and unflinching honesty.

 

9. Eagles’ Nest by Anna Kavan
In this powerful fantasy, Kavan describes the life of an individual who cannot face the harsh impact of modern civilization. Exploring the shifting territory between the concrete world and the world of dreams, she questions both the ultimate reality of personal identity and of existence itself.

 

2676671410. The Bridal March and One Day by Bjornstjerne Bjornson
‘Norwegian journalist, poet and novelist Bjonstjerne Bjornson (1832-1910) earned lasting fame with his “peasant novels,” especially “Fiskerjenten” (“The Fisher Lassie).” The tales in this volume, “The Bridal March” and “One Day,” give entrancing accounts of everyday life in Norway — one set in the country, the other in the town. Bjornson was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903.’

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‘Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted’ by Andrew Wilson ***

I shall begin this review by saying that I am an enormous admirer of Sylvia Plath’s work.  I was utterly spellbound by The Bell Jar and her poetry as a teenager, and never wanted her diaries and Letters Home to end.  I have read a fair amount of biographical criticism relating to Plath, but interestingly, Mad Girl’s Love Song is the only one which I have come across that deals solely with her early life; as Plath deemed it, ‘the complex mosaic of my childhood’.  A wealth of information has been contained here about her childhood, some from ‘previously unavailable archives’.  Wilson has chosen to draw on primary materials rather than other biographies; thus, any conclusions which he draws are essentially his own.

Wilson has linked almost every single one of Plath’s childhood memories to one or more of her poems; here, he writes particularly intelligently.  Throughout, his prose style is enjoyable.  A strength in Mad Girl’s Love Song lies in the psychological standpoint, which is both strong and fascinating.  I loved reading about the effects which certain books had upon Plath, and the criticism of The Bell Jar, much of which I hadn’t come across before.  As always, I very much enjoyed the accounts of Plath’s life in Cambridge, my home city.9780857205896

I have a slight issue with the way in which Wilson categorically states that he will take no other Plath biographies into account.  Surely to create a full picture of the author in his mind, he must have read at least a handful of her biographies in the past, and one surely cannot part with the conclusions of other experts so easily as he claims to do.  In terms of Plath scholarship, I do not feel as though the book adds a great deal of new or previously unknown information.  There are many anecdotes included within the pages of Mad Girl’s Love Song which I have read before, which takes a certain freshness away from his endeavour.

Still, one cannot argue with the fact that the scope here is vast, and that Wilson has been respectful in his handling of the material.  Ultimately, Plath was a fascinating woman, and no account of her could really be dull.  I cannot help but compare it to my favourite Plath biography to date, Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson, which I feel is incredibly thorough and invigorating, and also takes the whole of Plath’s life into account.  Whilst Wilson’s approach is interesting, I do not feel as though the sheer depth of Plath has been reached.  I must take issue with the afterword though; at only two pages long, I honestly feel as though the book would have been far better had Wilson not skipped over so many important details and ‘neatly’ summed up her suicide.

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One From the Archive: ‘Nijinsky’ by Lucy Moore ****

‘Nijinsky,’ writes Moore: ‘his name alone conjures up romance, exoticism, scandal and tragedy’.  Acclaimed historian Lucy Moore, who has written the first full-length biography of Nijinsky for decades, believes that he ‘transformed the world of ballet… as the first male star of the modern era, with critics and audiences hailing him the God of the Dance’.  She writes that he ‘had the same dramatic impact on ballet as the work of Picasso had on painting’. 9781846686191

Vaslav Nijinsky, born in 1889, is said by many to be the greatest dancer of the twentieth century, and was the shining star of the famous Ballets Russes.  For the first time in the scope of Nijinsky’s biographers, Moore has been able to take into account his personal diaries to further enforce her information.  She spans the course of his fascinating and incredibly sad life, until his death in 1950, and even touches upon the legacy which Nijinsky the dancer left behind.  She is conscious of his tough climb to the top, and those problems which beset him with every step forward.  When he began to train at the prestigious Tsar-owned ballet school at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, for example, he had trouble fitting in, despite his obvious talents.  As a Polish boy ‘with a strong accent, and notably poorer than the others, he was despised by his peers, ignored in all the school games and made to feel inferior at every turn’.

Nijinsky, who excelled at his craft and found fame in the Ballets Russes at an early age, was born into the ballet; his parents were both ‘gifted professional dancers’, and his younger sister Bronia joined the same company as him.  In his own diary, Nijinsky wrote that his parents ‘considered it as natural to teach me to dance as to walk and talk’.  At the start of the book, Moore sets out the family history of the Nijinskys, which is fascinating in itself.

From the very beginning, Moore’s writing is beautiful.  Her prologue is centered around the premiere of Nijinsky’s ballet ‘Le Sacre du printemps’, which was choreographed with two poets, and was first staged in Paris in 1913.  ‘Le Sacre du printemps’, and other ballets choreographed at around the same time, writes Moore, created ‘a revolutionary, entirely modern form of ballet, stripped of the tinselled artifice of previous generations’.  Amongst other elements – becoming the husband of a rather formidable woman named Romola, and the father to two doting daughters, for example – Moore wonderfully exemplifies the friction between Nijinsky and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who schooled him in homosexual relationships.  Throughout, Moore is conscious of the social constraints which Nijinsky and his family would have struggled against, and uses them as a backdrop to the biography at every turn.  It is clear that she is so in control of her subject and in the information which she presents, and has used each one of her sources with clarity and consideration.

Photographs of Nijinsky and those who were close to him have been printed in glossy sections, and these are a lovely touch.  Moore has also included a comprehensive notes section and far-reaching bibliography, which those who enjoy ballet, or even just non-fiction in general, are sure to find invaluable.  Moore’s account of Nijinsky’s life has been called ‘mesmerising’, ‘captivating’, ‘timely’ and ‘hugely enjoyable’.  It is all of these things, and more.  Moore’s respect and admiration for Nijinsky shines through on each and every page, and one cannot help but think that she was perfect candidate to write such an enlightening biography of him.

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Flash Reviews: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ and ‘Uprooted’

Time for some more flash reviews!

Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser *** 9780753826546
I am very much interested in Mary’s story, but haven’t studied any history of the period since I was at secondary school. I chose to read Fraser’s account of hers because she is so well revered; I thought that if anyone could present her tale in a fascinating and memorable way, it would be her. Alas, I have a few issues with the book. Mary Queen of Scots held my attention for the first 150 pages or so, but I felt as though it shifted after that point, losing some of its initial sparkle. Fraser’s effort is also a little protracted; it would have been better, and far more successful, had it been presented in a book of half this size. As it is, Mary Queen of Scots (book, not person – although she did stand at the height of five foot eleven…) was rather a behemoth.

The entirety is very repetitive; there is so much emphasis placed upon the (frankly largely unimportant) details of Mary’s appearance and height, and the reiteration of such things feels unnecessary. Fraser’s writing is not bad, but given her stature as a biographical historian, I had expected that it would be far tighter, better structured, and more expansive. Much of the vocabulary is used again and again, sometimes in the same sentence. The book could have been riveting – indeed, I thought it would be after reading the witty and amusing introduction – but it felt flat.

I would like to pick up another Fraser in future to see how it compares, but I shouldn’t think I will be doing so for quite some time. After all, the wrist ache needs to subside first…

 

Uprooted by Naomi Novik **
9781447294146I must begin by stating that I am not really a reader of fantasy novels, and tend to prefer a healthy dose of realism. That said, I largely decided to try ‘Uprooted’ since it was splashed all over my Instagram feed, and everybody was saying how amazing it was.

I did not find this an amazing book. Whilst the beginning captivated me, and left me wanting to know what was going to happen, I felt as though it immediately became plodding and rather dull. The narrative voice did not feel a realistic one to me, and it was repetitive to boot. The pacing was off, too. Reading it felt like wading through a pool of treacle; the end was in sight, but I just couldn’t bring myself to get there.

The elements of fairytale here would have captured my attention if they hadn’t been so trite. This book had so much scope to be good, and even original, but I feel rather disappointed that I had to abandon it 100 pages in; it just wasn’t doing anything for me.

 

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Reflections: ‘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.