Book review: Cancer story Maps Of Our Spectacular Bodies brims with life

Maddie Mortimer's Maps Of Our Spectacular Bodies inspires a sense of curiosity and wonder.

Maps Of Our Spectacular Bodies

By Maddie Mortimer
Fiction/Picador/Paperback/448 pages/$32.95/Buy here/Borrow here
4 out of 5

It is a cruel irony of life that one tends to feel most alive when death is close by.

British author Maddie Mortimer's dazzling debut novel about a woman with breast cancer is a life-affirming read - all the more so because of its proximity to death.

Tripping the light fantastic across time periods and perspectives, it is told through the prism of protagonist Lia. Her thoughts and interactions with her husband, ex-lover, young daughter, mother and friend are all placed under the microscope.

The reader, like the cancer, becomes a kind of voyeuristic disaster tourist, slipping and sliding through the fragments of people's conversations. There are no speech marks, no boundaries.

Like Lia's cells, the words on the page are busy mutating. Lots of lexical shape-shifting goes on - the words are often formatted in bold and italic print, in different fonts, or in shapes such as a star, spiral and dove.

The language itself is protean, kaleidoscopic: "I, itch of ink, think of thing, plucked open at her start; no bigger than a capillary, no wiser than a cantaloupe..."

These early lines would not seem out of place in Irish writer Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. The style of Mortimer's book, however, leans towards the fragmentary, rather than the stream of consciousness, and is in many ways a more accessible read.

Despite the ever-looming spectre of death, this is a book that inspires a sense of curiosity and wonder.

Lia happens to be writing a language-learning book, Lexical Spectacles, which indexes and defines interesting words such as purlicue, gloaming and maggot.

There is also the mystery of her past. Episodic flashbacks shed light on her romances, her relationship with her parents and her daughter Iris' birth. One joins the dots in reverse as the book unfolds.

Maps Of Our Spectacular Bodies is a spectacularly complex work of astonishing scope and vision. It merits multiple readings. While some readers might find it disorientating or too sprawling, this structural bagginess is what makes it both true to life and full of life, capturing, with clear intent, the messy, haphazard workings of the heart and mind.

Mortimer, who is 26 this year and whose own mother died of cancer more than a decade ago, is a writer of exceptional talent. Her book will make readers acutely aware of their own mortality, prompting them, perhaps, to wonder: Is life a conveyor belt towards death? Are one's genes ticking time bombs? What does it mean to love and let go?

While there are many books that explore these themes, it is rare to find one that does so in such an immersive and harrowing way.

Books do not often make me cry, but when I read this one, I wept.

If you like this, read: The Art Of Death: Writing The Final Story by Edwidge Danticat (Graywolf Press, 2017, $25.57, OpenTrolley Bookstore), in which the Haitian-American novelist gives an account of her mother dying from cancer and explores how other writers deal with death in their work.

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