Source: Review copy
Publication: 31st March 2022 from Picador
My thanks to Picador for an advance copy for review
Today I might trace the rungs of her larynx or tap at her trachea like the bones of a xylophone . . .
Something gleeful and malevolent is moving in Lia’s body, learning her life from the inside out. A shape-shifter. A disaster tourist. It’s travelling down the banks of her canals. It’s spreading.
When a sudden diagnosis upends Lia’s world, the boundaries between her past and her present begin to collapse. Deeply buried secrets stir awake. As the voice prowling in Lia takes hold of her story, and the landscape around becomes indistinguishable from the one within, Lia and her family are faced with some of the hardest questions of all: how can we move on from the events that have shaped us, when our bodies harbour everything? And what does it mean to die with grace, when you’re simply not ready to let go?
I was not sure I was going to be able to get through this heart-breaking book. There can be few of us who have not been touched by the death or illness of a loved one from cancer. But Maddie Mortimer’s debut novel is bold and original and above all, the quality of her writing holds you in its grasp as you read about the experiences of living with a terminal diagnosis.
It’s partly a coming of age story and partly a look back over the life of the Lia, the woman with the terminal diagnosis. It’s about how she and her family come to terms with knowing they will lose a loving mother.
We begin with the news that Lia’s cancer has returned and from there the novel moves between her past and her present as we learn about Lia’s life and family and we hear from the very cancer that is killing her.
This is a book that touches all the emotions and plays with moods. Sometimes it is witty and achingly funny. At others it is heart-breaking and deeply meaningful. We understand Lia’s innermost fears, borne from a difficult relationship with her mother and making her determined not to make the same mistakes with her own daughter, Iris. The joys and heartaches of motherhood is a central theme is this book as Lia explores her own maternal relationships and we come to know her daughter Iris, now beginning a new phase of her life at her new secondary school. Lia wants to shield Iris from what is to come, but she knows that is just not possible.
As Lia looks back on a happy marriage to Harry, a University lecturer and remembers her first love who had a profound effect on her, her gentle nature is contrasted with the brutal, malevolent voice that is her cancer, battling with ‘Red’, the poisonous chemotherapy treatment that is also coursing through her body. Her brain recalls her childhood while her heart remembers her first, problematic, lover. Each of her organs recalls memories… of her childhood, of Iris’s birth of her own relationship with her mother and her love for her husband.
Maddie Mortimer writes exceptionally well. Her story is told compellingly and her characters, seen through the prism of Lia’s life and choices, breathe life and fire. The narrative arc is incredibly well plotted and the changes in pace and setting are perfectly achieved. As Lia’s illness progresses, so her own narrative becomes more disjointed and the prose becomes more lyrical, sometimes poetic, and her cancer’s voice intrudes more strongly.
There is so much to marvel at in this beautifully written book. It’s honest and sometimes brutal, reflective and remarkable. It captures Lia’s moods so well, and everyone will recognise the strategies that she adopts as her illness impacts on her and her family.
Verdict: You know the ending….that’s been clear from the start, but the journey is spectacular. A brilliant debut by an accomplished writer that is human and profound. Written with style, wit and without a hint of mawkishness, this is a brilliantly written work of art. It will make you weep, though.
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Maddie Mortimer was born in London in 1996. She received her BA in English Literature from the University of Bristol. Her writing has featured in The Times and her short films have screened at festivals around the world. In 2019 she completed the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course. Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is her first novel.