A young woman is chained to her sick mother, whose mysterious, undefined and variable illness has led them both to an eccentric alternative doctor in the desert and deserted south coast of Spain. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016, this was unlike anything I’d read before. The nearest I can get to describing it is a modern-day Hamlet, where the centre of the woman’s protagonist is whether she is free to live her life if she remains a carer for her difficult, negative, sick mother.
(Although the book is good, I do have to protest at this point at the familiar trope of the poor carer trapped in caring for the annoying invalid, who may or may not be faking her illness. Our media right now is saturated with two narratives about disabled people: 1) that those with fluctuating or ‘invisible’ illness are no doubt fakers, and 2) disabled people are burdens on others. It would be lovely for those of us who live with fluctuating illnesses to have disabled fictional characters who reflected the lived experience of most of us with disabilities – friendly, hardworking and resilient – instead of getting shunted into these categories).
The writing style is its main selling point: halfway to poetry, each short sentence is visually evocative and full of literary allusions. It has a dreamlike quality – strange, colourful, lucid scenes, with a background of stream of consciousness Woolf-esque inner monologue. You can smell the salt on the sea, the fish guts in the market, the sweat on her skin.
There’s not much of a plot, and none of the characters are particularly likeable. But it reads like a work of art. It does a lot with few words: exploring the power and weakness of women, the parent-child relationship and the ways we chain ourselves to each other, doomed love and the different ways we live in fantasies of our own making. Be warned: our book club was split, with many finding it plotless, slow and just plain weird.
But if you are a lover of poetry, alert to the classical allusions, the interplay of myth and psychology, this is a rich and rewarding read – and so different from anything else that it’s definitely worth your time. Highly recommended.
*I received a review copy and this is my honest review*