Illustrated by Anna Walker.
How do you tell a six year old that his father is gravely ill with cancer? Or his four year old brother? What does a child do with that information? When Chloe Hooper’s husband, historian Don Watson, received the diagnosis of a rare and aggressive form of leukemia, she turned to what she and her husband knew best: words and stories. Humans have drawn upon stories for time immemorial- indeed, it may be stories themselves that make us human- as a way of explaining the world around us and containing fears. Cancer, that very adult fear, is often described as a “journey”, drawing on ideas of the hero who inhabits both children’s and adult literature. As adults, we may think of fear of the dark as a childish fear, but it seeps through the pages of this book in Anna Walker’s illustrations that capture the inkblot of fear and death, the brush with spiders’ legs and the oppression of the deep, dark wood.
Hooper pores over the children’s literature shelves of bookshops and libraries, buying but ultimately rejecting the books written especially for children whose lives or families are touched by cancer. Instead, this book is presented as her story for her unnamed elder son, who is addressed as ‘you’ throughout. At one level it is an almost abstract, dispassionate survey of children’s literature from its “golden days” of the nineteenth century but, underneath her summary of the themes and biographies of authors like Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, L. Maud Montgomery is a more plangent question for her: what pain or trauma drove these authors to write for children?
These digressions into children’s literature are a way of avoiding the more immediate threat. Hooper traces through the early diagnosis and initial chemotherapy treatment, then the long, leaching period of ongoing chemotherapy and its side effects. The eye of the writer is always looking. As they drive in silence towards St Vincent’s Private Hospital for the initial chemo, the hospital where her young children were born (as, indeed were my own, more than 20 years earlier), the traffic is stopped on account of a young psychotic man up on the roof of the adjacent public hospital, threatening to commit suicide. The irony of suicide juxtaposed against people like them, desperate to hold onto life, is not lost on her. They sit in their room on an upper floor of the hospital, decorated in an intense purple, waiting, waiting, waiting – as much of the next year will be spent waiting. She reflects:
Is this what everything has been leading to? All the business that fills a life- two marriages, two divorces, a daughter, three stepchildren, a year later two young sons- was the fucking and the fighting and reading and the writing all leading to this high, purple room?p.105
“Don” as his children call him, was very much an older father – he was aged 62 when the son referred to as ‘you’ in this book was born- and nurses sometimes mistake him as the children’s grandfather. I can only think that it was the presence of this young life around him that gives him the strength to face the chemotherapy regime which extracts its own toll in the time he has left to him (the oncologist Ranjana Srivastava addressed the issue of ‘time toxicity’ in an excellent recent article in the Guardian). The book is, too, a tribute to “Don’s” own achievements with his degree in history from (my own) La Trobe University (pointedly but accurately described on p.105 as “a newly built institution set in a dust bowl between two mental asylums, a cemetery and a drive-in movie theatre”) through to his work as speech writer for Paul Keating, leading to his wonderful biography/reflection Recollections of a Bleeding Heart and later books on the use of language in politics. But it is almost as if she is watching Don from behind glass: it is his struggle, on his own. The world closes in on them, as the family becomes transfixed by the nesting of a pair of white-plumed honeyeaters in their garden, and as the house becomes the centre of Don’s fight. She continues her work on completing The Arsonist, published in 2019 but it is as if all this is happening in another universe. Meanwhile, what they fear most is played out in front of them as the father of her eldest son’s friend dies of cancer too. Books may not be able to tell how to get through this: seeing another family doing so, does. The pages become drenched in black, and the upper-case text shouts “TEAR IT ALL UP” “STORIES AREN’T HELPING” “THEY ARE ONLY MAKING THINGS WORSE” “NO STORIES, NO MORE”
As she notes, readers often jump to the end of a book to find out how it finishes. I won’t tell you.
I finished this book feeling quite wrung out by it, and almost as if I had invaded their family territory. Hooper herself, of course, has invited us to draw close, but I still couldn’t help feeling as if I had somehow trespassed into someone else’s pain. I did find myself wondering about the logistics of writing this book – it followed a chronological thread but it was not a diary. At what point was it decided that it become a publishable piece? Do the commercial decisions of cover, illustrations and editorial shaping undercut its authenticity? What do you do with such an intimate piece of writing? Does the author climb onto the publicity treadmill, numbing herself to rehash the same conversations over and again for an audience?
This is beautiful, honest, human writing, but I really don’t know how to honour it without cheapening it. Do I give it a ‘score’? Stars on Goodreads? Do I listen to the interviews that she is giving (e.g. with Richard Fidler on ‘Conversations’) while I’m driving along in the car? Will it win literary prizes, with all the accompanying hoop-la? I feel as if she was compelled to write this book, as the only thing that she knew how to do. I felt that I wanted to keep reading it, to acknowledge her humanity and generosity in sharing it. But I still feel as if I am intruding.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library