a novel told by cancer

“Today I could trace the rungs of his larynx or tap his trachea like the bones of a xylophone or cook or undo some of my own horrors, because here’s the deal with bodies: they’re incredibly easy to prowl, without anyone suspecting it. a thing.”

Who or what tells the first page of Maddie Mortimer’s debut novel Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, isn’t immediately clear. Or not until we slip out of the guts of central protagonist Lia and find her en route to the hospital where the doctor delivers the bad news: her cancer is back.

A novel about a dying woman that’s partly told by both the disease that’s killing her and the chemotherapy that’s her only chance for survival isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but hear me out. Mortimer’s debut is actually a lot less experimental than it sounds, and it’s also a lot more compelling and uplifting than one might expect.

Lia is a 43-year-old children’s book illustrator, her husband Harry is an academic and they live in London with their 11-year-old daughter, Iris. Lia’s diagnosis disrupts the happy but resolutely routine existence of the family – how could it be otherwise? – but also the rhythms of everyday life buzz despite everything. Iris goes to school, where she comes face to face with a bully in class. Harry has to keep working, even when he feels like “all the usual locks that held his consciousness in his body have been lifted”. Lia, meanwhile, has to juggle the side effects of her chemo and the daily demands of motherhood in “this act of taking days off her sleeve.”

As time progresses, the seasons change, and Lia’s outlook grows dimmer, Mortimer also unfolds backwards through the story of its protagonist’s life. Her father was a vicar, but it was her mother’s faith – a “huge, impenetrable” thing with a life of its own – that sucked all the oxygen out of their home: “She entered the rooms before her, often announcing his arrival, then prevent everyone from moving.

Lia’s first escape attempt is a forbidden and ultimately toxic teenage romance with an older boy who is a sidekick to her father, but it’s not until she leaves home that she finally manages to start living. his life on his own terms. Opening one’s college admission letter is a sensory experience, releasing the “scent of tomorrow’s burnt” freedom into the air.

Lia’s mother buys a book about cancer, which she then struggles to read because it’s too advanced for her, aimed more at science students. “But she was trying, at least,” she thinks, “trying to figure out what was happening to her daughter’s body.” Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is Mortimer’s own attempt to try to figure out what happens to a sick, overgrown body; to give narrative meaning to an otherwise illogical and overwhelming experience. The novel is dedicated to his own mother, television producer and writer Katie Pearson, who died of cancer in 2010.

Mortimer certainly deserves praise for his inventiveness, but his approach is not entirely unprecedented. Over the years, we’ve come across all sorts of unlikely storytellers. Remember Nutshell (2016), Ian McEwan’s reworking of Hamlet told by an unborn foetus? Like Mother (1988) by Jenny Diski, meanwhile, was told by a baby born without a brain. In My Name is Red (1998), Orhan Pamuk used a whole chorus of weird narrators, from a severed head, a tree, a gold coin, and even the color purple. And Markus Zusak gave it his all when he decided that the grim reaper himself would narrate The Book Thief (2005).

Mortimer is the latest in a more recent wave of writers experimenting with different ways of expressing embodied experience on the page: think Natasha Brown, Eimear McBride, Max Porter and Rebecca Watson. More cohesive than Watson’s fragmented account of sexual violence, Little Scratch, and less poetic than Porter’s The Death of Francis Bacon, Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies falls somewhere in between. It certainly has its most radically creative moments, especially as Lia gets sicker – words with peculiar shapes (a star, a dove, a series of concentric circles); sentences stumbling and tumbling down the page; conflicts in the police; a spread-out double-page spread on which a single word is printed over and over again – but that’s method rather than madness.

For all his rich agility, I’m not sure he has quite the polish to make Booker’s shortlist, but who knows. As a debut novel, it’s undeniably impressive: Mortimer is clearly a talent to watch.


Maps of our Spectacular Bodies is published by Picador at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph books

Irene B. Bowles