Coax­ing the uni­ver­sal from the par­tic­u­lar

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Agnes Nieuwen­huizen

The Twelfth Raven By Doris Brett UWAP, 314pp, $29.99 Shy: A Mem­oir By Sian Prior Text Pub­lish­ing, 250pp, $32.99

IN 2011 a lit­er­ary scuffle broke out in the US fol­low­ing Neil Genzlinger’s re­view of four mem­oirs in The New York Times un­der the head­ing “The prob­lem with mem­oirs”. Genzlinger ar­gued: “Three of the four did not need to be writ­ten, a ra­tio that prob­a­bly ap­plies to all mem­oirs pub­lished over the last two decades.” He be­moaned the “cur­rent age of over-shar­ing”. Nev­er­the­less, more and more mem­oirs are pub­lished and en­thu­si­as­ti­cally read, in­clud­ing in Aus­tralia.

In a re­view in this news­pa­per of Mandy Sayer’s third mem­oir, The Poet’s Wife, Jo Case wrote of the au­thor’s first two: “Both are text­book ex­am­ples of mem­oir at its best, com­bin­ing en­gross­ing sto­ry­telling (and un­usual sto­ries) with metic­u­lous per­sonal in­sight that coaxes the uni­ver­sal out of the par­tic­u­lar.” It is worth look­ing at Doris Brett’s sec­ond mem­oir, The Twelfth Raven, and Sian Prior’s first book, Shy: A Mem­oir, in the light of these views.

The Twelfth Raven falls into the sub-genre of med­i­cal mem­oir. Martin, Brett’s fit, non-drink­ing, non-smok­ing 59-year-old hus­band, notes some odd signs dur­ing his beloved Jewish dancing class. (He has learned 300 dances but aims to learn all 3000. He’s also a com­puter an­a­lyst.) When he com­plains: “I’m hav­ing trou­ble putting words to­gether,” Brett snaps to: “I am a psy- chol­o­gist. I’ve stud­ied neu­ropsy­chol­ogy. I know that not be­ing able to put words to­gether means some­thing is go­ing on. In the brain.”

From here Brett is on the case 24/7, driv­ing and man­ag­ing Martin’s care and treat­ment. He loses the abil­ity to speak and the use of his right arm. Later he is di­ag­nosed with a life-threat­en­ing heart con­di­tion, an un­der­ly­ing in­fec­tion and de­vel­ops epilep­tic seizures. What caused what? Will he re­cover?

Brett is quick to pin­point in­com­pe­tence, lack of fo­cus and com­pas­sion, and be­comes a fe­ro­cious doc­tor, hospi­tal and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion care shop­per. Martin must have the best doc­tors and also the best beds in any ward! She also ac­knowl­edges good care and ex­per­tise. She mon­i­tors the ef­fi­cacy of med­i­ca­tions, bat­tles the chaos and in­ef­fi­cien­cies of our large hos­pi­tals: the poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween de­part­ments, doc­tors and other hos­pi­tals, and the of­ten lu­di­crous rules about pri­vacy and dis­clo­sure.

When ap­pro­pri­ate re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion is un­avail­able, Brett em­ploys in­no­va­tive tech­niques, with their daugh­ter’s help, to work with Martin. Though she knows a lot about brain plas­tic­ity, she re­lies heav­ily on “Mr Google”, un­earthing the best and lat­est re­search. Her bi­ble is Nor­man Doidge’s best­seller The Brain that Changes It­self.

Over al­most two years, Brett also main­tains her psy­chol­ogy and psy­chother­apy prac­tice, en­dures a bout of chick­en­pox and posts fre­quent email up­dates for friends. Brett is an award-win­ning poet and some of her po­ems re­lated to this ex­pe­ri­ence are in­cluded. She gains sus­te­nance from close friend­ships, read­ing (“Mem­oirs be­come my only way of spend­ing time with a fel­low trav­eller”) and writ­ing.

She writes au­thor­i­ta­tively, with flair, pas­sion, pace and flashes of self-dep­re­cat­ing hu­mour, es­pe­cially about her strug­gles with ATMs, credit cards and tech­nol­ogy. Martin used to do all that. Her ac­count is in­for­ma­tive, in­struc­tive, but also chill­ing. Few of us would have the knowl­edge, con­fi­dence, lan­guage, per­sis­tence or per­sonal and fi­nan­cial re­sources to un­der­take what she did. De­spite be­ing the most co-op­er­a­tive, un­de­mand­ing and op­ti­mistic pa­tient, does Martin owe much of his full re­cov­ery to Brett? From this ex­pe­ri­ence Brett recog­nises the cru­cial need for “pa­tient ad­vo­cates”. She also sagely notes: “The carer is car­ing for the pa­tient but no one is car­ing for the carer.”

Brett’s first mem­oir, Eat­ing the Un­der­world, de­tailed her ex­pe­ri­ence with ovar­ian cancer. Be­cause of Martin’s ill­ness she post­poned ge­netic test­ing. Now she finds she has the dreaded BRCA1 ge­netic mu­ta­tion. So Brett swings into ac­tion again, find­ing the right/best surgeons af­ter de­cid­ing on a pro­phy­lac­tic dou­ble mas­tec­tomy, fol­lowed by breast re­con­struc­tion. She

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