There is always a coming storm: Disembodied by Christina Tudor-Sideri

(W)ere it not for the troubling discoloration of my skin, one could even think that I am merely sleeping out in the open; it is only September after all, and is not September the perfect month for resting under the bruised sky?

Novels narrated by the dead are not an entirely unique literary phenomenon, but typically the deceased speaker takes the reigns to unravel a mystery, look back on a life, or observe future happenings from beyond the grave. Disembodied by Christina Tudor-Sideri opens with the statement, “I died on the twelfth of September, at the height of happiness,” but proceeds as uncertain meditation on this strange state of being no more, yet continuing to be. It could be described as an exercise in imagining experience unguided by expectation that begins when a woman slips out of life while sitting in the garden beneath a chestnut tree and becomes, ultimately, a kind of existential post-mortem of the self.

Disembodied is a novel with only an intimation of plot. It is a speculative journey, reader with writer—one in which the destination is no more evident to the former than the latter. But that is not to imply that this is a ghostly narrative that wanders widely and recklessly, rather it is one in which that narrator is still bound somehow to her own corpse, neither really inside nor outside. It is not what she might have anticipated, to be consciousness still tethered to a body, immobile yet somehow sensible, slowly embarking on a new relationship with reality, tangible and intangible.

She is a woman becoming a memory. An unstable and fragmented one.

Memories visit, moments from childhood and from the most recent tasks left unfinished in her nearby house. But critical biographical details escape her—she can’t remember what she might have once done for a living and, although she can recall people from her past, she can bring no faces to mind. She can sketch out a pattern of decisions that led her to move to an isolated location, she can talk of illness and pain, but death has disconnected her from the compass of time:

There are moments in which it feels as if months have gone by, that it has been months, even years since I fell here, and there are others when I am certain that it happened mere seconds ago, moments when I think I will get back up and return to my day as if nothing had happened, and I wish I knew now a little something about brain activity after death, about how consciousness is connected to the physiological functioning of the brain and how death severs that connection—about the very process of death, if not something, then everything, in great detail.

Being dead is not, in itself, a problem for our narrator. It is as if its early arrival—she figures she is probably in her mid-thirties—is something she anticipated, a probable outcome of an illness she had accepted, even sought to meet in solitude. And yet to be incompletely disembodied was unforeseen. She feels, or imagines she feels rain and falling leaves touch her skin. At times her body seems to be preparing to return to nature, while at other times she longs to move, weighed down by the burden of the illusion of breathing, an embodied remembrance that feeds the sensation that she could simply arise and return to her day. It remains, then, for her to reflect on life and death, the abstracted joys and sorrows that don’t quite fit into a complete picture, unable to shut out a parade of fragmented memories—experienced or read in a book or caught in a dream. “At rest” there is no rest.

Here in the presence of no other human being, with eyes that burn like embers in my skull, eyes that I don’t even know whether they belong to me or how I would recognize them if someone were to hold a mirror above, under this chestnut tree that looks nothing like the one I once knew, in this garden that I have seen in my dreams over and over again, long before ever actually finding the house, I let words crawl out of my mind and out of my mouth, only to waste them on speaking of something I have not thought of in years, to waste words and to waste myself on suffocation one final time.

Her questions become increasingly existential, focused on the matter of what kind of matter might account for this continued consciousness. A soul? An awareness that does not depend on functioning senses? The philosophical expansiveness becomes a kind of freedom, a freedom without answers, only more questions, but even as she drifts she cannot escape the pull of the longing to be. Again and again she returns to anchor herself, under a tree, in the garden. The tangible remnants of recent life, her nearby house, her library, a cup of coffee, an unfinished letter call to her.

There are echoes here of Tudor-Sideri’s first book, Under the Sign of the Labyrinth, a memoir/meditation on embodied experience that draws on myths and traditions of the Romania of her childhood to explore what it means to exist in corporeal form, wounded, mortal. But this is a philosophical/fictional exercise that extends beyond what we can know, open-ended and unrestrained. As she explains in a collection of interview fragments gathered in Minor Literature[s]:

I felt an urge to allow myself more: to play with something different, more permissive, although permissive is not necessarily what I mean – I needed a larger playground, as simple as that. And the novel, a dash of fiction, allowed me to do so. I did not plan anything, I did not know where I would arrive, I had nothing in mind aside from the beginning, which I pulled from a dream, same as a few other scenes […]

This openness and resistance to any specific genre, allows her to entertain the kind of problems that rarely trouble the typical post-death narrator and present a most intriguing possibility—that dying might not be exactly the release we imagine. The narrative style—a single, unbroken paragraph—enhances the claustrophobia of the speaker, often troubled that her thoughts and memories won’t release her. I might have preferred an occasional line break here and there, but when I think about it that’s a question of my comfort. A dead narrator doesn’t need to stop to catch her breath.

Disembodied by Christina Tudor-Sideri is published by Sublunary Editions.

“We know something of ourselves, but not much.” The White Bathing Hut by Thorvald Steen

Beneath my clothes there is 1.8 square metres of skin stretched over five litres of blood, thirteen billion nerve cells and twenty-five billion red blood corpuscles.

I’ve got twenty-three chromosomes in each cell.

The chromosomes in each pair are the same length, apart from the fourth. There, one of the chromosomes is fractionally shorter than the other.

That’s why I can’t get up and walk out of this text.

One might hope that, at this point in time, especially more than two years into a global pandemic, that illness and disability might be understood as something that could strike anyone, at any time, even you or someone you love. But, as we have seen, human beings have a stubborn capacity to blame those who fall ill, experience extended symptoms or die for their outcomes, citing age, lifestyle, or co-morbidities. The stigma and shame well known by those of us who live, love someone and/or work with people who have a disability, has been replayed and reinforced  during this extended period of co-existence with a persistent, evolving virus with unknown long term consequences.

The events chronicled in Norwegian writer Thorvald Steen’s The White Bathing Hut illustrate the extent to which societal attitudes toward disability can lead to deception and family dissolution. The unnamed narrator is a man nearing sixty whose deteriorating physical condition has left him dependent on a wheelchair. One day, with the Christmas season approaching, he receives a call from a woman who identifies herself as his cousin, the daughter of his mother’s brother. The existence of an uncle and a cousin come as a complete surprise to him, but, as this woman, Eline, explains, his family had refused to have anything to do with hers and she had only come to know of him by chance. She also reveals that her father and their mutual grandfather both died of the same disease he has. This unexpected information leaves him wondering if his entire life was constructed on a web of lies and sets off a chain of urgent inquiries. His account unfolds through a spare, tight narrative reported from an unusual perspective, so to speak.

Several weeks after Eline’s call, while seated at the table trying to find a location on a map of Norway, our narrator leans forward, realizing too late that he’s forgotten to apply the brakes of his wheelchair, and he and the chair topple over as if in slow motion, each movement described and dissected in poetic and anatomical detail. “I land in a heap. / Soft and hard. / Textiles, hair, flesh and bones. / That’s all there is.” His wife has just left for a week-long business trip, his daughter is away for the weekend and his caregiver is off for the holidays. His phone and alarm are on top of a shelf out of reach and he is now consigned to a new vantage point… the floor.

Unable to get up, his thoughts turn to his own past, to the development of his disease, and the more recent investigations and interrogations triggered by his cousin’s phone call. He had been diagnosed in his teens with a progressive form of muscular dystrophy that causes gradual muscle degeneration and eventual paralysis—news that was a terrible blow to him as an athletic young man with a promising future as a ski jumper. But the reaction of his parents was even worse. They warned him to tell no one. They refused to speak about it. Tried to wish it away. So he was burdened with a secret that slowly unveiled itself as his muscles weakened. Now, armed with new information there is a further significance to his desire to better understand his place within the broader context of his family history: his daughter Karoline appears to have inherited the same crippling condition.

The spare, tight narrative proceeds in short, nonchronological chapters that move between the protagonist’s childhood, youth and adult years, and the few weeks that have just passed. He has recently made two visits to his recalcitrant mother who informs him she is dying of cancer but refuses to answer his questions. What little he can glean guides his search through archival sources for biographical details about his uncle and grandfather. As he looks back over his personal life experiences, his efforts to conceal his pain and growing weakness—often by putting himself at risk—is contrasted against the demonstrations of physical strength that marked his earliest years. The increased awareness of body difference and stigma lead him to believe he will be forever unloveable. As a young man, his future, as he sees it, looks bleak:

How could I make a plan of any kind? I didn’t know what I’d look like or be able to do in a few years’ time. I hated my body. If anyone had told me that I ought to think positive, I’d have hit them. The weekends were the worst. Sometimes I lay in bed the whole of Saturday and Sunday without the energy to sit, eat or drink. In the mirror I could see that a few of the little muscles around my eyes and mouth had completely disappeared.

This is a very physical text. A story that is bound to the body. Driving this physical aspect home are the poetic interludes, often containing minute skeletal and cellular descriptions, that regularly relocate the narrative in the immediate space, on the floor, where the narrator observes his surroundings and struggles to shift his reluctant limbs into a position that might enable him to push himself up. It is an exhausting, futile effort. With a steady resolve he returns to his account.

Although the disability central to this novel is explicitly visible, The White Bathing Hut manages, without ever exercising a heavy hand, to call attention to the extent to which any disability—physical, cognitive or mental—is met with a social stigma that extends beyond the afflicted individual to the family and their contacts. It also alludes to an even darker subtext, that of Norway’s difficult historical relationship with eugenics. Of course, neither of these factors are unique to Norway, nor are they entirely behind us. Shame associated with disability still exists, and the ability to selectively control for desired sex, against congenital conditions, or even for other qualities raises serious ethical questions. Through this book’s very honest, resilient and endearing narrator, many of these critical issues are brought to light.

The White Bathing Hut by Thorvald Steen is translated by James Anderson and published by Seagull Books.

Seeking comfort in isolation: Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson

“My disappearance is like a crime without a motive, and they’re notoriously difficult to solve, aren’t they?”

At the beating heart of Rupert Thomson’s new novel Katherine Carlyle, is one young woman’s unshakeable belief that the measure of her very existence rests in a haunting uncertainty that can only be resolved by physically retracing her origins. For the eponymous heroine of this moody and original tale, the journey is one that will lead her to the darkest coldest place she can find. She is convinced that the only way she can feel whole and find peace in the world is by locating a space that might replicate the atmosphere of the first eight years – not of her life – but of her very existence. For she was the product of IVF, back in the 1980s when the science was in its nascent stages. She is deeply troubled, resentful even, of that fact that she was left to endure many long years of cold storage in a suspended embryonic state before finally being implanted into her mother’s womb. It is this complicated obsession with her origins that drives her mission.

kitWe meet Katherine, or Kit as she is called, in Rome. Born in the UK, she moved to Italy with her parents when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. After putting up a valiant, at times ebullient fight against her illness, her mother eventually succumbed to the disease. Her father, a foreign correspondent, was on the road more than he was ever at home, so the loss of her mother was acute and left her to enter young adulthood with a false sense of maturity and an abiding loneliness that no amount of luxury or youthful glamour could assuage. As she begins to encounter random coincidences or “messages” that she interprets as signposts to a potential resolution of her deep-seated unease, she has no idea where these clues may lead. But one thing is certain, she has does not plan to make her way to Oxford where she is due to start University in the fall.

“It was spring when I first started noticing the messages. Back then, they were cryptic, teasing. While crossing the Piazza Farnese, I found a fifty-euro note that had been folded into a triangle. A few days later, at the foot of the Spanish Steps, I found a small gray plastic elephant with a piece of frayed string round its neck. I found any number of coins, keys, and playing cards. None of these objects had anything specific to communicate. They were just testing my alertness.”

With what seems like a willful complacency, Kit opens herself to all possibilities. She takes risks and discards every “lead” – many of which involve men who cross her path – the moment she decides that the clue, person or place is either misleading or has outlived its usefulness. A chance conversation overheard at the cinema about a man in Berlin sparks her curiosity and gives her a first solid lead, if seeking out a complete stranger with only a name and location can be interpreted as solid. Kit is not easily deterred. She disposes of her computer and her phone, clears out her inheritance from her savings account, and heads to Berlin, intent on erasing her tracks behind her. Once she arrives her beauty and her cool attitude serve her well but her openness to coincidence often borders on recklessness.

“That’s what life is like now. I hold myself in a constant state of readiness. Every occasion – every moment – trembles with a sense of opportunity. I have no idea where the next communication will come from, but I know that one will come – perhaps even from the unwholesome, insidious man who is still standing beside me.”

She does have an uncanny number of convenient encounters. In Berlin she manages to secure a Visa and Letter of Invitation to allow her to enter Russia. Her goal is to aim as far north as possible. Her journey is charmed. She does reach a distant and remote outport, but whether she can actually outrun the cold darkness that she holds inside herself remains to be seen.

There is a subdued fairytale quality here and if that was all this book offered it would be a lightweight offering. But there is more. As Kit narrates her journey, she looks back on her mother’s life and death. Even though a number of years have passed, the loss is still an open wound. She carries a sense of guilt, a belief that the pregnancy and birth that brought her into the world, freeing her from her frozen nearly-non-being, was the cause of her mother’s cancer. She has gone so far as to convince herself that her father also blames her. She hates him for that and wants to punish him by disappearing. Yet as she makes her way north she is continually unspooling a cinematic narrative in her head. Scripting her father’s reaction to her absence and the sketching of an increasingly elaborate imaginary pursuit seems to take a more prominent role in her mind as her own life becomes smaller and simpler.

The language is beautiful, the atmosphere is charged with energy (“The night feels brash, dramatic. Nickel plated.”) Thomson is especially adept at evoking a strong sense of place. The sounds, scents, and sights of the many cities, towns, and barren landscapes his heroine passes through are given colour, texture, and weight. A trail of vivid images is left in her wake. In Kit he has created a complicated character, a mix of wisdom and naïveté. At times I did find her voice a little jarring, as if it did not ring true to her age or gender, but as you come to see just how lost and confused she really is, it is difficult not to fall under the spell of Katherine Carlyle and the book that shares her name.

Other Press, October 2015, 304 pp                                                                               Review copy provided by publisher through NetGalley.