“Pleasantly inventive” – Maps of our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer

IMG_2023-3-5-164330Lia, forty-three, parent of one, has metastatic breast cancer; she’s not going to survive it. Her husband, Harry, is struggling to deal with the knowledge of his beloved wife’s impending death. Her daughter, Iris, is being bullied at her new secondary school, and her once-estranged mother, Anne, is trying to express, at last, her long-buried feelings for Lia and their history. And twining around all this is the cancer itself, a slippery, multitudinous entity, part Lia and part Other, a God-like being with access to her body and mind and a will of its own.

So. Maps is partly narrated in the first person by the cancer itself; otherwise, it’s a shifting third person account of the lives of its various other characters, with Lia the main focus, but Iris, Harry and Anne getting look-ins as the plot progresses. As the cancer winds its way progressively through Lia’s body, its narrative presence increases; as it nudges through her organs and into her brain, it prompts lengthy segues into memory sequences, with Lia dwelling more and more on her past as her end nears. This means that we get her backstory jostling for attention amidst the present-day issues (her healthcare, Iris’s schooldays, Harry’s workdays), and another plot slowly emerges: Lia’s earlier relationship with Matthew, a volatile young man who once came to live in her childhood home.

Thematically, obviously, we’ve got cancer, meaning illness and death, and in this case, death in one’s mid-forties, which brings with it a young adolescent coping with the loss of her mother, an aged mother looking at the loss of her daughter, and also Lia’s professional frustrations, as she leaves her work unfinished. Mortimer tackles the progressive degradation of the disease – Lia’s physical health suffers, of course, but so does her mental acuity – and her descriptions of the chemotherapy process are particularly vivid, but the book’s main focus is on the extended family unit and the different manifestations of love in Lia’s life. We see her relationships with Matthew and Harry play out, alongside her ambivalence and uncertainty about her own choices, and we see, too, the disintegration of her childhood family unit: her father, a vicar, well-loved and kindly, distances himself from the messiness of Lia’s life, and her mother, Anne, stiff and committed to the Church, cannot reconcile herself to the visceral passion manifested in Lia and Matthew’s affair. Later, as Lia is dying, Anne is forced to confront this reconciliation at last, but meanwhile, the book explores the clash(es) between parental, sexual, romantic and filial love, as well as the love of God, a love that empowers and fulfils Anne and her husband, Peter, and one that’s used as a crutch by Matthew, but that continues to evade and confuse Lia. To which love do we owe loyalty? Which love can sustain us?

Clearly, then, it’s a book that shies from the superficial: motherhood, faith, death, self-realisation – aren’t they the big themes of many a life? Is it, though, a success? It’s certainly a moving book: with Anne, in particular, Mortimer crafts a delicate and convincing portrait of the difficulties of navigating complex relationships and the sometimes wavering nature of even a deep religious faith. The book’s defining feature, though – what most readers will remember – is the agency and voice given to the cancer itself, which is emphasised in the text by bold font and other typographical flourishes (deployed in a more limited way elsewhere, too). These sections are lyrical and energetic, playful, and wide-ranging in their cultural reference points, with the disease taking on a rakish, devilish character, which harks, of course, to Lia’s lack of faith and the contrast between her life and her mother’s. But while this dark mischievousness emphasises, at one level, the bleak reality of Lia’s situation, it also threatens to distract from it. As in Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the formal embellishments (greyed-out and curved text) seem intended to work as a shorthand for trauma and horror, but given that the real horror lies in Lia’s starkly truncated reality, they rather lure the reader’s attention away from this. The rest of the text experiments with layout in a way reminiscent of Bernardine Evaristo’s work – particularly Girl, Woman, Other – as it plays with line-breaks and gestures, at times, towards poetry, but again, it’s not clear that the content necessitates the form: if the experimentation was localised to a particular character’s psychological state, it might work more convincingly, but as a general feature it loses power.

Any Cop?: Mortimer is a talented writer with an inventive and lyrical imagination, but in this case the invention somewhat overshadows the topic itself. Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones is perhaps a better example of formal experimentation and interiority; see Marilynne Robinson for family and faith. But this is nonetheless moving, and the inventive quality is pleasantly surprising for a Booker longlistee. Let’s see how far it gets.

Valerie O’Riordan


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