The Iceberg: A Memoir by Marion Coutts

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The Iceberg: A Memoir by Marion Coutts

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: A devastating yet mysteriously gorgeous account of a husband's decline and death from a brain tumour. Its mixture of understated narration and artistic whimsy is astonishing. Without a doubt one of the best books of 2014.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: July 2014
Publisher: Atlantic Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1782393504

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Winner: Wellcome Book Prize 2015

'Something has happened. A piece of news. We have had a diagnosis that has the status of an event. The news makes a rupture with what went before.' With these plain, unsentimental words Coutts begins her devastating yet mysteriously gorgeous account of her husband Tom Lubbock's decline and death from a brain tumour. Shortlisted for the Costa Biography award and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, it was also a finalist for the Samuel Johnson Prize.

I have read many cancer memoirs and stories of surviving the loss of a loved partner. What makes this one distinctive? Two things made it, for me, absolutely essential reading. First is the language, a rather astonishing mixture of understated narration and artistic whimsy that pitches it perfectly between the twin pitfalls of dull reportage and mawkishness. Second is its personal impact, on which more later.

Never have I encountered a writing style quite like this. Coutts's phrases and sentences are often short and simple, a piling up of matter-of-fact statements that somehow, seemingly effortlessly, convey the intolerable: 'We are three [their son, Ev, was two years old]. The consciousness of one of us is being interrupted. His self-hood is in jeopardy. How will he be? Will he still be mine? What about knowledge of love? That's the main thing.'

In clear-eyed, unflinching prose, Coutts chronicles the inevitable: 'There is going to be destruction: the obliteration of a person, his intellect, his experience and his agency. I am to watch it. That is my part. There is no deserving or undeserving. There is no better and no worse.' Coutts is a visual artist, and it shows: there are some remarkable scenes here in which she retreats to exhibit her life, a kind of tableau of helplessness and pain. 'From a distance, I can look into our house and see the small family inside it. How easily we may be overrun! How defenceless we are. It is pitiful.'

The cinematic immediacy of the writing saves this book from banality or melodrama. Surgeries, tense conferences with doctors, a toddler's tantrums, endless modifications to their home and routines – it could all make for boring lists. Instead I devoured every detail. Likewise, the litany of hurt, fear and incremental losses could be maudlin, but Coutts turns repetition into haunting mantras: 'It is all explosions and aftershocks. There is the trauma of love and there is the trauma of death but ultimately it is all trauma.'

There are three doomed figures in this unfolding tragic reel. Marion is 'a tiny diver seen from the ground black against the sun. I am on the highest level of the tower.' While Tom circles the great chasm of death, first a jovial pasha and later 'blurring, borderless, bespoke: nearing a liquid state,' Marion approaches the title's monolith: 'I am nearing the iceberg. My tears are sonar. They release on impact a faint understanding of what lies beneath: a vast solid, the floating mass of ice that is still to come.' And then there is Ev, who, in a neat little irony, was learning to talk just as Tom was losing his own grip on language. Ev was growing by leaps and bounds; Tom was diminishing bit by bit.

Lubbock, an art critic and journalist, wrote his own short book about his experience, wryly titled Until Further Notice, I Am Alive. Toward the end it was very much a joint effort with Marion; she was often the only one who could understand his limited vocabulary, even if it took a round of twenty questions to elicit his meaning. Much like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, there is an amazing story behind its composition that doesn't necessarily come through in the text itself.

The Iceberg, however, comes almost uncomfortably close to home: my brother-in-law was first diagnosed with a brain tumour in December 2010. After surgery and chemotherapy, it went away – then came back with a vengeance. We don't know how long he has. Already he has outlived his diagnosis by a year and a half. He's currently somewhere along the same arc of speech loss and physical disability that Lubbock travelled.

This is a gut-wrenching read; why embark on it, especially if you have no personal connection? I've always believed there's something to the classical theory of catharsis. I.A. Richards explained it in his 1924 book, Principles of Literary Criticism: 'Pity, the impulse to approach, and Terror, the impulse to retreat, are brought in Tragedy to a reconciliation which they find nowhere else.' We draw closer to look on at the horror, but then, relieved and purged of emotions, we get to walk away. (Well, some do, anyway.)

Coutts has turned the impossible, the unbearable, into a singular work of art – without a doubt one of the best books of 2014.

A husband's speech loss and a wife's attempts to cope are elements shared with One Hundred Names For Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing by Diane Ackerman. On related topics, we can also recommend The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery by George Johnson and A Tour of Bones: Facing Fear and Looking for Life by Denise Inge.

Booklists.jpg The Iceberg: A Memoir by Marion Coutts is in the Costa Book Awards 2014.

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