Tag Archives: cancer

Lyrics for the Loved Ones by Anne Goodwin 

Where can you hear the voices of older women? How often do you hear them or read them? I began the series, older women in fiction, on this blog assuming that I would not find many books featuring the lives of older women. I was wrong. Thanks to many readers I have compiled a list that now contains more than 100 titles, with 66 of them linked to reviews on this blog. This is the 66th post in the series.

Anne Goodwin was an early supporter of this series and has also joined in my quest to see if older women writers have been marginalised. And she answered my impertinent questions on the topic. I think her publication list indicates that it is the independent publishers who are leading the way in taking on older women writers.

Please find this list of reviewed and recommended books here. You can make recommendations in the comments box.

Lyrics for the Loved Ones

It was a pleasure to meet Matilda Windsor again in this second novel in which she is the central character. In Matilda Windsor is Coming Home we met her after 50 years of incarceration in Ghyllside Mental Hospital in Cumbria, where she had been sent as a young pregnant and unmarried girl. That story looked at the new policy of Care in the Community, and how it would affect a person who had been institutionalised for so long.

In this new novel she is now a very old lady, living in Scarrowdale care home in West Cumbria. Matty has developed strategies to deal with her long-term care. She understands her circumstances through her own fantasies, imagining herself as a great performer, for example. She is always upbeat as a result of her mother’s voice prompting her inside her head. She gives everyone nicknames, for example, the ‘Loved Ones’ are the other residents, many of whom find her difficult. Olive Oyl is a politically aware former teacher; Oh My Darling Clementine is the nurse who was much loved by Matty but who could no longer work due to Windrush investigations; Bluebell her replacement has blue hair and so forth.

The novel is set at the time of Covid, and its characters are the staff and residents of Scarrowdale and relations of these two groups. There is a great deal of angst to go round. Not only are the questions and challenges raised by Covid for care homes staff and residents explored through the characters, but they also have other issues, as we did. There is the fear of cancer when treatment must be suspended; a mental health worker who sees the additional toll of the pandemic; searching for past histories to help understand one’s life. Some of the characters are affected by the #Black Lives Matter campaign. The toppling of Sir Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol prompts Matty to imagine that she is to blame for slavery, and she feels terrible guilt. An isolated woman tries to manage with very little support.

Responding to the crisis Matty plans to raise money for the Red Cross by reciting 100 poems, one a day up to her 100th birthday, on her You Tube channel, during lockdown. She is helped by Bluebell, who equips many of the residents with ipads with which to connect with the wider world.

The creative mind of the main character is as engaging as it was in Matilda Windsor is Coming Home. A spotlight is also thrown onto the work of the care staff, especially Bluebell, who reminds us of the many care staff who went beyond what was expected of them, and who provided exceptional personal care and opportunities to the people in their care during lockdowns.

Inequalities were exacerbated during Covid, many already existed. It was a difficult time for everyone, but some suffered more than others, as this novel vividly illuminates, with humour and humanity. It also reminds me of the importance of communicating, creativity, honesty and mutual assistance in times of trouble, and at all times. 

Thanks to Anne for providing me with an advance copy of her novel.

Lyrics for the Loved Ones by Anne Goodwin, published by Annecdotal Press in 2023. 333pp

Related Posts

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin (Bookword July 2021)

Let’s have more older women writers (Bookword February 2020)

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? Interview with Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails. (Bookword December 2015)

Older Women writers – in demand or not? (Bookword April 2023)

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

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In Gratitude by Jenny Diski

So I’ve got cancer. I’m writing. (13)

I came to know Jenny Diski through the London Review of Books, in which her ‘cancer diaries’ appeared. I followed her as she published 17 articles, from September 2014 until earlier this year and admired the vividness and honesty of her writing.

276 In Grat

Here is a taste of her approach and style from the opening paragraph:

Diagnosis

The future flashed before my eyes in all its preordained banality. Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of your pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future. Including the surprises. (1)

Rejection of Metaphors of fighting cancer

Her writing appealed to me because, in her first article, I read this statement.

One thing I state as soon as we are out of the door: ‘Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.’ I will not personify the cancer cells inside me in any form. I reject all metaphors of attack or enmity in the midst, and will have nothing whatever to do with any notion of desert, punishment, fairness or unfairness, or any kind of moral causality. (10)

Glynis in Lionel Shriver’s novel, So Much for That, makes a similar comment. The metaphor of fighting can blame the loser for losing – you didn’t fight hard enough! In the case of Glynis, she was fighting the US health insurance system, which decided that the rarity of her cancer made her uneconomic to research or treat.

‘Cancer Diaries’

276 J Diski

And despite the ‘preordained banality’ and the rejection of the metaphor of fighting cancer, Jenny Diski decided to write about her illness.

I’m a writer. I’ve got cancer. Am I going to write about it? How am I not? I pretended for a moment that I might not, but knew I had to, because writing is what I do and now cancer is what I do, too. (11)

Reading the cancer diaries

And so over the next months I read the diaries as they appeared in the LRB, and marvelled at the quality of the prose, how Jenny Diski used her skills to examine the experience of treatment and facing terminal illness. Of course I admired her bravery, but was mostly absorbed in her writing because it was taking me into an experience with which I had only a small amount of familiarity: the best kind of writing.

I also enjoyed her humour, not so much the graveyard kind as of a good companion who finds humour and humanity, life, even in cancer treatment. The ‘Onc Doc’ is an example. So is the description of the radiotherapy procedures. And when the articles were collected and put together in a book, published more or less as she died in April, I bought the book and read it all again.

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski in 1963

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski in 1963

And Doris Lessing came into the book a great deal. Jenny Diski had a very troubled adolescence, her mother and father seem to have been unable to parent her. After experiences in psychiatric wards and in care, she spent some time at St Christopher’s School, where Doris’s son Peter met her. Doris Lessing offered to take her into her home in London. It was a decisive change in her life, even if it was not altogether successful, not the end of Jenny Diski’s troubled youth.

I must admit that my admiration for Doris Lessing has somewhat reduced as a result of this account. But the gratitude of the title is in part for the generosity of the older woman. How it corresponds with the cancer diary aspect of this book is not clear to me. But it was fascinating. A unique story retold.

276 Doris Lessing

And …

Since I first read her articles a friend has also been diagnosed with, treated for and very recently died of cancer. I look back at the opening paragraph of In Gratitude. I too found the banality, embarrassment and weariness of cancer treatment and death. And everything that happened, everything that was felt, including the surprises, was lived again by another set of people.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury 250 pp.

Jenny Diski wrote many novels including:

Nothing Natural (1986)

Apology for the Woman Writing (2008)

… and non-fiction:

Skating to Antarctica (1997)

The Sixties (2009)

What I don’t know about Animals (2010)

 

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