Category Archives: Book Genres
We live in an age when people share the most deeply personal aspects of their life with complete strangers.
Magazines are plastered with articles detailing celebrities’ experiences of eating disorders/sexuality/mental health/abuse just to mention a few. And I’m not sure how daytime television would survive if it didn’t have a steady stream of guests willing to open up on issues that a few generations ago would have been considered taboo.
But there’s one topic about which we are strangely reticent even though it affects every one of us. Death.
t’s a form of denial, a basic human instinct to avoid what is uncomfortable. We even avoid using the actual word. Instead we turn to euphemisms which sound less direct, less harsh, less final in a sense. We don’t say a friend/relative died, they “passed away” or “passed over” or simply “passed”.
The Fear Factor
Our own death is more difficult to contemplate than that of our loved ones. So we don’t prepare for it. We treat it a bit like those tax return demands, a task we know we have to deal with – but at heart we’re afraid. So the longer we can delay the task, the happier we are.
Few of us would, out of choice, spend our days surrounded by people whose time on this earth can be measured in weeks or days.
But that’s exactly the world Rachel Clarke decided to embrace. After more than a decade as a doctor who fought to save lives, using every drug and machine at her disposal, she changed direction. Now as a consultant in palliative medicine she cares for people whose battle for life is over. A specialism that’s little understood or valued.
If neurosurgeons are the rock stars of the medical hierarchy – its sexy, alpha, heart-throb heroes – then palliative care doctors are the dowdy support act. A low-rank medical speciality, we lurk in the shadows, too close to death for comfort …. No one in the hospital is quite sure what we get up to, and usually does not wish to know either. Death is taboo for many reasons, not least the fear that it might just be catching.
Dear Life begins as an autobiography, charting Rachel Clarke’s life as the daughter of a hard-working dedicated GP. She considered following in his footsteps but instead followed the path of literature and the arts, becoming a television documentary maker.
In her late 20s she re-assessed her life, abandoned the broadcasting world and retrained as a doctor. What she witnessed in the emergency unit, convinced her to make palliative care her specialism.
Despite my love of acute and emergency medicine, I found myself drawn to patients with life-limiting illness precisely, in part, because some other doctors ran a mile.
Clarke is critical of doctors she heard curtly despatching their patients to the “palliative dustbin” as if they felt that once in a terminal phase of illness, human lives were no longer worth engaging with. But she tempers her censure; acknowledging that from detachment is an essential requirement in the medical profession. It’s a lesson that begins the day that an aspiring doctor begins their medical training.
We might have chosen medicine because we wanted to help people, but doctors could not and should not allow their compassion free rein. … The challenge then for every doctor was to acquire sufficient detachment to be useful while maintaining one’s essential humanity.
That need for detachment is put severely to the test when death comes right to the door of Rachel Clarke’s own life. In his 70s her father was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Clarke was ever the professional as they discussed at length his diagnosis and his treatments. But as his health deteriorated and it was clear he was close to death, it was the daughter who took over, who bathed him just as he had once bathed her in childhood.
Candid and Sensitive
Dear Life is candid yet overwhelmingly sensitive and moving account of what it’s like to work in the world of the dying. A uncomfortable book to read you might think, one that would be far too depressing; too emotional, too heartbreaking.
Of course it’s emotional. Of course it tugs at the heart. How could it not? But Rachel Clarke shows that even when people are at their lowest ebb, they have the capacity to love and embrace moments of unadulterated joy. Dear Life gives us a wedding, a fiercely independent woman coiffured and dressed in pearls for her final bridge session and an elderly woman who had lovingly frozen portions of fruit and fish so her husband would be able to survive without her.
These anecdotes were the ones that brought the tears to my eyes. Because they’re not about death, but about life and how people like Rachel Clarke help us prepare to say goodbye in a way that truly means we can rest in peace.
Dear Life is quite simply a stunning book. I urge you to cast aside any fears it will touch on too many nerves and get yourself a copy. I guarantee you will not regret it.
If you like novels that deliver down and dirty versions of history, you’ll love Little by Edward Carey. Heads are severed, rats run amok in the corridors of a palace and fleas breed in muck-strewn streets. Add to which are blood-dripping severed heads and decomposing bodies.
This isn’t some nightmare location of a horror novel. It’s how Paris is seen by Marie Grosholtz, an orphaned girl apprenticed to a maker of wax heads and bodies during the time of the French Revolution.
Never heard of Marie Grosholtz? I’m not surprised. As a child she was one of life’s nobodies; a plain, uneducated servant girl who lived in a tumbledown house in Paris that was once a monkey museum. You’ll know her better by the name she adopted after her marriage: Madame Tussaud. Yes that Madam Tussaud. The one who created one of the world’s most successful entertainment empires.
An Extraordinary Life Re-imagined
Little is Edward Carey’s imaginative version of Madam Tussaud’s early life. To describe it as an extraordinary life would be an understatement.
Orphaned at six, Marie became apprentice-cum servant to Doctor Curtius, an eccentric doctor in Switzerland, learning first how to draw the human body and then to make wax versions of diseased body parts. Moving to Paris she progressed to making wax human heads for display and was engaged as art tutor to the King’s sister.
Heroes and villains of the Revolution put their heads in her hands (some more willingly than others of course). Jean-Paul Marat; Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre and King Louis XVI to name just a few. .
An Unusual Narrator
She’s a brilliant narrator. This short-sighted, hook-nosed tiny figure has strong emotions and isn’t afraid to express them or to act upon them. She is not an evident supporter of the Revolution but her views about egalitarianism and equality would have found support in many quarters.
View a person without clothes, and that person could be anyone from any time, great or insignificant. The human body has changed very little over hundreds of years; no matter what you put over it, underneath it still looks the same. Clothe that person, however and you pin him down.
She even has the temerity to insist that her royal pupil looks beyond the clothes and accept that she and her servants have the exact same internal bodily organs and mechanisms.
Looking Beyond The Obvious
Marie has learned herself how to see beyond the obvious; to look beneath the skin as it were. And she puts this to good use to bring to life the people who inhabit the macabre world of revolutionary France. Marie doesn’t just write her own story, she draws it – her pencil sketches of people, some of their body parts, and occasional objects, appear throughout the book.
Together they provide some of the most entertaining elements of Little. King Louis XVI for example becomes a man with ” a fleshy underchin and womanly breasts all of which he stroked from time to time with his pudgy, knuckless hands.” Dr Curtius looks to the young Marie like a skeleton when she first sees him lurking in the shadows:
…. a very thin, long man. So long his head nearly touched the ceiling. A pale ghostly face; the meagre candlelight in the room trembled about it, showing hollows in place of cheeks, showing moist eyes, showing small wisps of dark, greasy hair.
She’s an equally acute observer when she turns her eyes upon the streets of Paris. She’d been told to expect a city full of culture and great minds. But what she sees is a city crowded with desperation and poverty.
One day as I was coming back from the market, I saw a mound in a ditch, some heap of rubbish, but when I came closer I saw hair upon one end. A head, a female human head, grey and fallen in, a body lying dead in the street and all the people walking by i and paying it no heed. A person all stopped, collapsed and ignored; a person of indeterminate age that had once dressed itself and been among us. This is Paris, I thought. Dead people punctuating the streets and no one to care for them.
Carey tells his tale with relish. I don’t mean that he wallows in the guts and gore but that he gives Marie a personality that is hard to resist. Little is a fabulous book, ingenious, unforgettable and unputdownable.
Little by Edward Carey: End Notes
Edward Carey was inspired to write Little because of his experience working at the museum. Entertainment Weekly has an interesting interview in which he talks about his research and why it took him 15 years to write Little.
Little is published by Aardvark Bureau, part of the Gallic Books Collective
The novel was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2019