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‘This Really Isn’t About You’ by Jean Hannah Edelstein ****

Olivia Laing calls Jean Hannah Edelstein, author of the memoir, This Really Isn’t About You, ‘one of the most brilliant writers of her generation.’  This, her second book, revolves around her father’s death from cancer, and discovering six months afterwards that she had inherited the gene for Lynch syndrome, which causes many different kinds of cancer to form.

9781509863785Edelstein, who was thirty-two at the time, moved back to the United States in 2014, when she was told her father was dying from lung cancer.  Up until this point, she had spent her entire adult life abroad, and was settled in London, where she worked as a freelance journalist, supplementing her passion for writing with temporary office jobs.  Six weeks after she arrives back at home, and almost simultaneous to her renting an apartment in New York City, her father passes away: ‘I was in Brooklyn looking for love on OKCupid when my father died.’

She goes on to reveal: ‘That night in February, I had a rare feeling of contentment, or something like it…  I was beginning to feel like it might be time to build my real life in America…  Maybe my life was almost under control.’  She reflects here on her father’s death in the family home in Baltimore: ‘My father tried to eat dinner, and then he told my mother that he was really not feeling well, and then he stood up from the easy chair where he had been spending most of his days for the last few weeks, and then he collapsed and died on the wooden floor in the space between the dining area and the family room.’

Edelstein begins her memoir by writing about her family history; she does this with humour and love.  She discusses, in part, her Jewish father’s relationship with his faith: ‘As far as I know, the ways in which my father was Jewish were mostly food ways: he ate briny fish and cold beet soup from jars.  Pumpernickel bagels, grainy dark breads.  My father drank little alcohol – Jews don’t really drink, he’d say, which was maybe less of a fact than a rumour – and he avoided pork products.  When pressed, he claimed it was less a fear of God than a fear of trichinosis.’  Amongst other elements, she talks of summer holidays spent with her Scottish grandmother in rainy Dumfries, moving to London for graduate school, and falling in and out of love.

Finding out that she had the gene for Lynch syndrome was, as one would expect, difficult to come to terms with. Her siblings and cousin, when they were tested, were found to be clear of the gene.  Edelstein is convinced, however, from the moment at which her father suggests that she goes to see her doctor, that she carries it: ‘… I had decided not to get tested while Dad was alive.  I couldn’t imagine telling him that I had the thing that was killing him.’  She goes on to explain: ‘My father had been dead for six months before I was brave enough to go and get the test.  I was no longer in a state of deepest grief.  I didn’t cry every day any more.  Just some of them.’

Lynch syndrome is a gene mutation, which around 1 in 400 people carry: ‘It’s found in all kinds of people, but in particular it’s found in people who can trace their origins to certain “founder populations”.  Folks who built families with people like them.  People from Finland.  People from Iceland.  French-Canadians.  The Amish.  Ashkenazi Jews.’   Following her own diagnosis, Edelstein was forced to confront some incredibly tough questions about both her present and her future: ‘How do we cope with grief?  How does living change when we realize we’re not invincible?’

This Really Isn’t About You has been variously described as heartbreaking, filled with hope, and ‘disarmingly funny’.  I found it to be all of these things; it is a rich memoir, full and quite revealing at times.  I enjoyed her brand of humour, which tends to be quite dry and sarcastic.  Edelstein’s authorial voice is consistently warm and candid, and a real pleasure to read, despite the more difficult scenes which she has described.  Her writing feels like a cathartic exercise; she has to come to terms with so much, and is open about it all to her audience.  Edelstein’s tone, and her intelligent and measured prose, coupled with the substance of the memoir, makes This Really Isn’t About You both an easy, and very difficult, book to read.

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One From the Archive: ‘One Hundred Names’ by Cecelia Ahern **

First published in October 2012.

One Hundred Names is the most recent novel from popular author Cecelia Ahern, whose writing has been translated into forty languages and has been adapted for both stage and screen.

Her newest offering centres on Irish journalist Kitty Logan.  Kitty has been reporting for a television news programme but has been suspended pending libel charges: ‘I’m not a TV star, I’m an idiot who made a fool of herself on TV.  There’s a distinct difference’.  Her crime, as outlined by another of the book’s characters, is accusing ‘a well-respected PE teacher, who is married, with a young family, of sexually abusing two students and fathering a child.  On television.  In front of the entire country.  And you were wrong’.  

As if this wasn’t enough for Kitty to contend with, Constance, a woman who has been highly influential in her life, faces losing her own in an unrelenting battle with terminal cancer.  Constance, describes the book’s third person narrator, ‘was nicknamed The Graveyard.  Any secret, any piece of confidential information, personal or otherwise, that went in never, ever came back out…  She was solid, permanent and steady, stoic but oddly comforting’.  We are launched straight into the relationship between the two women.  Despite this, the novel does not really grab the reader’s attention at its beginning.  Whilst the situation Kitty and Constance are in is rather a sad one, it is rendered almost mundane as the scene at the outset continues.

The main thread of the story comes a considerable chunk of the way through and is contained within a ‘simple brown manila envelope’ found in Constance’s desk.  It contains a list of names, all of which appear to have been chosen at random: ‘There was no summary, synopsis or anything to explain who these people were or what the story was’.  The rest of the story revolves around Kitty trying her best to identify these individuals and how they could possibly be related to one another, taking it upon herself to meet each one of them in turn.  She follows various dead ends and goes on wild goose chases before any kind of result is happened upon.

Ahern’s writing throughout One Hundred Names is relatively informative with regard to the movements of the characters themselves and the story’s main events, but there is no real beauty within it.  The descriptions are few and far between which is a real shame, and the lack of such sentences does detract a little from the novel.

The bare bones of One Hundred Names provide an interesting and thought-provoking idea, but it is one which has not been pulled off perhaps as well as it could have been.  It feels a little repetitive at times and is not as sensitively wrought as one might expect a novel which does not just touch upon the subject of cancer to be.

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‘So Much for That’ by Lionel Shriver ****

“Shep Knacker has long saved for “the Afterlife,” an idyllic retreat in the Third World where his nest egg can last forever. Exasperated that his wife, Glynis, has concocted endless excuses why it’s never the right time to go, Shep finally announces he’s leaving for a Tanzanian island, with or without her. Yet Glynis has some news of her own: she’s deathly ill. Shep numbly puts his dream aside, while his nest egg is steadily devastated by staggering bills that their health insurance only partially covers. Astonishingly, illness not only strains their marriage but saves it.  From acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Lionel Shriver comes a searing, ruthlessly honest novel. Brimming with unexpected tenderness and dry humor, it presses the question: How much is one life worth?”

9780061458590There is much divided opinion about Shriver’s So Much for That.  As in her most well-known book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, the book’s prose is highly stylised, and one can spot her distinctive writing from the outset.  Within So Much for That, Shriver demonstrates just how versatile she is as an author; this effort is markedly different to the aforementioned, but it is just as compelling throughout.

Many issues of importance are tackled here, but the one which rises above everything else is the healthcare system in the United States.  It gives a fascinating insight into insurance policies and how much things actually cost, which I in the United Kingdom have been sheltered from with our fantastic NHS.

Intelligently written and realistically characterised, So Much for That is sharp, exquisite, and mindblowingly good.  It held my interest throughout, until I reached the last dozen or so pages.  They served to ruin the whole for me somewhat; I did not feel as though the epilogue which Shriver presents is necessary.  In fact, it was reminiscent of that awful ‘grown-up’ scene at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which still infuriates me.  Ugh.  I have consequently come away from the whole feeling a touch disappointed, but know that I will definitely have to read all of Shriver’s other books in future; she has such a talent, and I am determined to give one of her books a five-star rating.

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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.

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Flash Reviews (20th January 2014)

‘The Charioteer’ by Mary Renault

The Charioteer by Mary Renault ***
Renault is one of the Virago authors whom I have most been looking forward to reading, particularly because April so adores her.  The Charioteer has been recently reissued, and many new reviews can be read in major publications, most of which praise it highly. From the start, I felt that I was reading something ultimately special.  Renault’s writing is absolutely lovely, and her characters and scenes are so very believable.The many years which pass between the chapters is an interesting technique.  Laurie, our protagonist, jumps from being a five-year-old to a seventeen-year-old applying to Oxford, and at the next juncture, he is twenty-three.  Despite all of the lost time between chapters, it does feel as though we get to know him rather well.  The Charioteer, which deals with Laurie’s homosexuality, is a very sad novel at times.  A lot of pain has been woven into his story, manifesting itself both physically and emotionally.  Overall, I found that the story was an interesting one, and Renault certainly addresses some important and topical issues, but my qualm with it was that I could not warm to Laurie.  I also found that I enjoyed the first two chapters far more than the rest of the novel.  Regardless, I would still very much love to read more of Renault’s work.

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‘Before I Die’ by Jenny Downham

Before I Die by Jenny Downham ****
I first read Before I Die when the paperback came out.  I did enjoy it, but found it incredibly chilling, coming as it did just a couple of years after my own grandmother passed away from cancer.  After watching ‘Now Is Good’, a 2012 film which is based upon the book and which stars the lovely Dakota Fanning, a re-read was prompted.

Before I Die tells the story of Tessa from her own perspective.  Four years previously, she was diagnosed with a form of leukaemia, which has become terminal.  Tessa has made a list of all the things which she wants to do before she passes away.  The novel is so very sad, even when you are prepared for what is coming, but Downham handles the topic so sensitively.  Tessa’s narrative voice is incredibly strong.  She is not always the most likeable of characters in terms of her actions, but everything she does is consistent with the shattering news which she has to face.  In this way, Downham has rendered her book rather a gritty read at times.  I liked the way in which she has blended several different stories together, and the way in which she shows how Tessa’s illness affects those around her, as well as herself.  I enjoyed Before I Die far more the second time around, and to everyone who has read and adored John Green’s beautiful The Fault In Our Stars, I say go and read this.

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The Christmas Truce by Carol Ann Duffy ***** (re-read)
Carol Ann Duffy’s Christmas books are absolutely beautiful, both in terms of the words and illustrations.  I first read The Christmas Truce, which tells the lovely story of the British and German soldiers putting down their arms during a First World War Christmas, and spending a peaceful day together, swapping gifts and playing a football match, last year, when I spotted it in the lovely Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange.  This is a book which I will gladly read every single year, and one which I will never tire of.

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From ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ by Oscar Wilde (1907)

The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde ****
I absolutely adore Oscar Wilde, and this is one of just two works of his which I had not yet read.  The sense of place throughout this poetry collection is stunning, and his writing sublime.  I adore his use of language.  A wealth of subjects have been considered here – Milton, Nelson, Ancient Greece, death, nature, Scandinavian myths and legends, travelling, religion and history just to name a few.  Sadly, I did not quite fall in love with The Ballad of Reading Gaol enough for it to rank amongst my favourites, but it is still lovely.  My favourite poems were ‘The Harlot’s House’ and ‘Les Ballons’, which you can read below.

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Les Ballons

Against these turbid turquoise skies
The light and luminous balloons
Dip and drift like satin moons,
Drift like silken butterflies;

Reel with every windy gust,
Rise and reel like dancing girls,
Float like strange transparent pearls,
Fall and float like silver dust.

Now to the low leaves they cling,
Each with coy fantastic pose,
Each a petal of a rose
Straining at a gossamer string.

Then to the tall trees they climb,
Like thin globes of amethyst,
Wandering opals keeping tryst
With the rubies of the lime.