There’s a saying that truth is stranger than fiction and Georgia Blain’s exquisite posthumous memoir, The Museum of Words is testimony to this.
We often expect reality as we experience it to be less dramatic than fiction, and most of the time it is. But this was a perfect storm: a confluence of dark clouds gathering, all lined up in the horizon, every one of them heading my way.
In November 2015, Georgia Blain was diagnosed with a tumour sitting in the middle of the language centre of her brain. She had no warning, apart from a niggling sense that her speech wasn’t quite right.
It was as though the building blocks of my sentences, so much that we say without even thinking about the words we are choosing, had gone.
Weeks earlier, her best friend and mentor, Rosie Scott, had been diagnosed with the same type of brain tumour. And at the same time, Blain’s mother, Anne Deveson, was moved into a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. All this happened as Blain was in the final stages of editing her latest novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog – the main character in the story has a brain tumour.
If the plot line for Between a Wolf and a Dog had followed this last year of my life, I hope that my editor would have advised me to lose a cloud or two.
“The central character has just put her mother in a home with Alzheimer’s, her mentor and best friend has terminal brain cancer, she has written a book about terminal brain cancer, and now she has it, too,” she would have said. “Maybe a little too much?”.
Reflecting ‘…who would I be without words?‘, Blain turned to writing to rebuild her language and herself. In The Museum of Words, she shares various memories relating to reading and writing. There’s a particular vividness and elegance to these simply told memories. Of childhood, she said –
I began to make up stories of my own – horse stories, boarding-school stories, sometimes written down with pen and paper, sometimes just muttered to myself as I bounced my netball up and down the garden path, driving everyone crazy.
She also talks about her relationship with her mother and her own daughter, Odessa, in terms of reading and writing. But it all circles back to the central and unavoidable theme –
Once I said to Odessa that writing was the only activity in which I could forget time, and when you forget time, you forget mortality.
Blain never intended to write an ‘illness memoir’, noting that such memoirs are written with the benefit of hindsight, when there is distance and understanding of the experience. She knew that ‘hindsight’ was not a luxury that would be afforded to her. She knew that she wasn’t ‘battling’ cancer, that she was living with it. And she knew that she wanted to continue to document her life, as she had always done.
I have written my life over and over again (many writers do), seeking out commonality of experience with my characters, perhaps trying to affirm that I am not as unlikable or uncharitable as I fear I am.
Despite Blain’s intention to avoid pronouncements on life and illness, she eloquently gets to the root of it – ‘…this is the eternal human paradox: the only way we can cope with our mortality is to ignore it, to live as though we have all the time in the world.’
There were so many moments when, as I was reading this book, my eyes filled with tears. But it was this that broke me –
There is nothing anyone can say to haul me away. I have to do it myself, crawling back from the lip of the crater towards all that I love in life, while knowing that I have to loosen the grip of everything I hold most dear. I am not afraid of dying. What I am afraid of is saying goodbye.
Georgia died in December 2016. Anne died two days later, on what would have been Georgia’s 52nd birthday. Rosie died in May 2017. All three women were writers, with language at the core of their being.
4/5 Is it wrong to have wanted more?