Calmly into the breach

A writer fac­ing death from a brain tu­mour of­fers up a grate­ful ac­count of her “life in words”.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - By MARK BROATCH

It would be a stretch to say I am ­en­thu­si­as­tic about ill­ness mem­oirs. Of Christo­pher Hitchens’ mem­oirin-col­umns, Mor­tal­ity, and the English art critic Tom Lub­bock’s Un­til Fur­ther No­tice, I Am Alive, both from five years ago, I wrote: “These brief, hand­some hard­backs are their ac­counts – mov­ing but un­sen­ti­men­tal, vis­ceral but thought­ful

– of life after di­ag­no­sis. Both des­per­ately want to live. Both want to make sense of their lives, and their po­ten­tial deaths.”

Ge­or­gia Blain’s The Mu­seum of Words de­serves sim­i­larly un­re­strained praise. The Syd­ney writer, who died in De­cem­ber last year, had the same tu­mour as Lub­bock, a ­glioblas­toma mul­ti­forme stage 4. She shared the same dread, and her ill­ness mem­oir – a term she uses, when ­speak­ing of Lub­bock and nov­el­ist Jenny Diski, who died of can­cer last year – is eas­ily as

good. Mu­seum tells of her dis­cov­ery of the tu­mour, aged 50, by way of col­laps­ing on to a bed of jacaranda and flame-tree blos­soms.

Like the two Brits, she feared for her abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate ­(Hitchens pos­si­bly los­ing what his wife called “his per­fect voice” to throat can­cer and ­Lub­bock his sinewy fa­cil­ity for lan­guage); she had al­ready been aware of a prob­lem find­ing the right word that she knew was more than for­get­ful­ness. At around the same time, the dementia di­ag­no­sis of her mother, ­broad­caster Anne Deve­son, is ­con­firmed and her close friend, ex­pa­tri­ate Kiwi writer Rosie Scott, finds she is los­ing her ­lan­guage and her life to the same ­ag­gres­sive lit­tle mar­ble in her head.

Blain seam­lessly re­veals joys – her daugh­ter Odessa is find­ing her feet in words – and ­com­pli­ca­tions of her fam­ily, and man­ages to pro­vide some keen in­sights into the art and graft of telling sto­ries.

I’d not heard of Blain be­cause, as a rule, we don’t read Aus­tralians and they don’t read us. But her books, nov­els for adults and young adults, short sto­ries and a mem­oir, reg­u­larly found them­selves on awards short­lists. Mu­seum is calm and ten­der and wise and brisk: you can read it in an hour or two. There are a cou­ple of mi­nor rep­e­ti­tions, which are for­giv­able if – it’s not en­tirely clear – the book was formed partly from col­umns she wrote for an Aus­tralian news­pa­per.

“I would like to end this with the three of us still alive,” she writes. “This ­minia­ture is my life in words, and I have been so grate­ful for ev­ery minute of it.”

THE MU­SEUM OF WORDS, by Ge­or­gia Blain (Scribe, $38)

“This ­minia­ture is my life in words, and I have been so grate­ful for ev­ery minute of it.”

Ge­or­gia Blain: joys and in­sights.

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