Genre: Literary Fiction
Published: Picador Press (UK) & Scribner (US), June 2022
My Rating: 5/5 stars “Thyme is to chili, parsley, basil, as time is to cancer, cancer, cancer.” Every so often I come across a book that I fall deeply in love with, but know for a fact that I won’t be able to express or share that love with many others. Because my love and connection to it is as much tied to me and my personal story, as it is to the story contained in these pages. Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is the lyrical tale of a woman, her body and the illness that coinhabits it. Told from the perspectives of Lia herself, her daughter Iris and the (callous? Cynical? Caring…?) voice of the disease itself, we follow her life after a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Despite the fact that my head is still too full with it to write a proper-form review, here are three things you need to know: 1. The prose is exquisite. It’s somewhere in that shadowland of not being quite prose, but not quite poetry either, yet every word is purposeful and in its right place. The closest thing I can compare it to would be Salena Godden's Mrs Death Misses Death, although I personally loved this book even more. 2. I can’t quite remember the last time I physically cried over a book. This one broke my tear-free streak though. With its unflinching and raw honesty, its deeply relatable characters and striking delivery, it hit a nerve I didn’t know was still so raw within me. 3. This is the best book about cancer I’ve read in a long time. That’s mainly because it’s not just a book about cancer. Unlike many others within the genre, Mortimer doesn’t portray a battle-narrative. There is no hero’s journey of a strong-willed protagonist against a body in revolt, or a personified evil to be vanquished. Instead it’s the story of Lia as a whole, and everything her body holds: memories, heartbreak, love, regrets, experiences; cancer being but one of them. Yes, it’s the story of a body’s annihilation, but only secondary to being about the life it has lived.
As a cancer-survivor, and now MD in Oncology myself, that neutrality and perhaps even “compassion” was what resonated with me and my journey so strongly. The journey of seeing cancer, not as an all-powerful malevolent force, but more neutral "passenger" or co-inhabitor of a body and a life. It's what I strive for in my own life and that of my patients: for their illness not to be all-consuming, but a part of life and a body that they can look at without fear, and with acceptance and a bit of compassion. I've never read a novel that captured a similar feeling so strongly.
I want to recommend this book to everyone. I also know that very few people are going to share the experience I had. I can see this being a marmite-book: great to some, off-putting to others. The only way to know is to experience it for yourself. Sometimes the best experiences are the ones we share with only a few.
Many thanks to the publisher for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. You can find this book here on Goodreads.