Fall­ing to dazed grace

Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEW - Re­viewed by Dani Gar­avelli

Hap­pi­ness: The Crooked Lit­tle Road To Semi-Ever After BY HEATHER HARPHAM Oneworld Pub­li­ca­tions, £14.99

THE ti­tle of Heather Harpham’s me­moir, Hap­pi­ness: The Crooked Lit­tle Road To Semi-Ever After, sounds as if it has been stolen from a self-help man­ual, so I had braced my­self for an on­slaught of New Age in­tro­spec­tion.

Sure enough, the first few chap­ters de­liv­ered much as an­tic­i­pated. As the book opens, the US writer, forced to go through preg­nancy alone, has just been told her new­born daugh­ter Gra­cie suf­fers from a se­vere form of anaemia which will leave her de­pen­dent on blood trans­fu­sions.

Those pas­sages in which Harpham writes about fight­ing to be al­lowed to ride in the back of the am­bu­lance, or stand­ing help­lessly by the in­cu­ba­tor, evoke a vis­ceral panic; but they are in­ter­spersed with navel-gaz­ing flash­backs to her early days with Gra­cie’s fa­ther, the Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Brian Mor­ton, their vis­its to a ther­a­pist and mus­ings on the na­ture of con­tent­ment.

As the pair slowly work their way back to one an­other, the reader is privy to ev­ery email, ev­ery shift of mood, ev­ery in-joke un­til Harpham feels like an over-shar­ing friend whose calls you are tempted to screen. Once the fo­cus shifts from the cou­ple’s emo­tional tra­vails to the fight to keep their daugh­ter alive, however, the book im­proves. Soon, Gra­cie’s con­di­tion wors­ens un­til she re­quires to be hooked up to a chelat­ing ma­chine for 12 hours a night and her par­ents are told she is un­likely to live be­yond 30. The sit­u­a­tion seems hopeless, un­til one doc­tor sug­gests stem cells from a sib­ling’s um­bil­i­cal cord might cure her. Now the cou­ple are faced with gen­uine quan­daries: should they bring an­other child into the world in the hopes he or she will be a match? And how can they bal­ance the pos­si­bil­ity of Grace dy­ing as a re­sult of a trans­plant against the prob­a­bil­ity of her dy­ing in early adult­hood?

Harpham has a keen eye and a quirky turn of phrase. New­ly­con­ceived, her daugh­ter is “a grain of rice with a heart­beat”, at birth she smells of “sliced ap­ple and salted pret­zels” and, emp­tied of blood, she is a “scare­crow girl”. De­spite her emo­tional in­vest­ment, she is able to give a foren­sic ac­count of Gra­cie’s re­ac­tion to her ill­ness and its im­pact. The three­year-old’s ca­pac­ity to adapt to ev­ery new pri­va­tion – to turn her IV pole into a char­ac­ter called Tough Guy and her chest tubes into pup­pets – is both im­pres­sive and piti­ful.

The most pow­er­ful sec­tion of the book is that set in the trans­plant unit. Harpham’s de­scrip­tions of the awk­ward dance be­tween par­ents and doc­tors will res­onate with any­one who fol­lowed the Char­lie Gard case, and the in­ter­ac­tion with other moth­ers and fa­thers with any­one who has spent time in a sick chil­dren’s ward. “This is how we told each other our sto­ries, in the mar­gins, in the kitchen, over Sty­ro­foam cups, while wash­ing our hands at the de­con­tam­i­na­tion trough, at the snack ma­chine, with­out cer­e­mony,” she writes.

When a child dies, Harpham stands out­side the closed door, imag­in­ing the griev­ing fam­ily in­side. “I want to look into their faces. To know if such loss is sur­viv­able,” she writes. Bom­barded with sta­tis­tics, she re­jects them. “F*** their ar­ro­gant ra­zored cor­ners, their cleaved sums. Their lit­tle hands rub­bing out your odds.”

These flashes of bril­liance make it easy to over­look her oc­ca­sional lapses into bumper­sticker apho­risms. And, ul­ti­mately, the hap­pi­ness the cou­ple re­alise is any­thing but trite. Har­rowed by loss, their state of “dazed grace” is all the more pre­cious for hav­ing been so pre­car­i­ous.

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