Book Review by Laura Grace Simpkins
Maddie Mortimer. Picador. 2022. ISBN 9781529069365
Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is the debut novel from writer Maddie Mortimer. It follows the last few months of Lia’s life–an illustrator in her forties married to university professor, Harry, and mother to precocious tweenage daughter, Iris. Lia is dying of cancer. She had breast cancer once before, years ago, and now it’s come back. During the course of the book, the cancer spreads from organ to organ and eventually it breaches her brain.
In the UK, many will be familiar with the television advertisements of our largest cancer charity, Cancer Research. The adverts that shock with the statistic that one out of two will be diagnosed with cancer in our lifetimes. Fifty per cent of us will get it. Rather cynically then, there’s no shortage of cancer, and thus there’s no shortage of literature about cancer either: of both fiction (My Sister’s Keeper) and nonfiction (When Breath Becomes Air) varieties. Mortimer’s book is unlike any of them. Because, quite simply, there isn’t a huge amount of medicine in it. We don’t go on countless trips to the hospital or overhear tough, too real, conversations about hospice care. There are only glimpses of those typical cancer scenes we’ve come to expect: the short sharp sting of a cold cap, the red violence of the intravenous chemo drug, doxorubicin. Even the news that the cancer has recurred is told minimally, sparingly, as if it were an unimportant detail, anything but central to the arc. Instead, there are things to amuse us. There are word games, a-d questionnaires, and verbal reasoning tests. There is concrete poetry: poems in the shapes of doves and bulls-eyes and firework residue.
Instead of cancer-as-content, Mortimer has written a book true to the disease’s insidiousness, resourcefulness, and survival instincts. Cancer clings to every fibre of Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies: it’s in the corners of paragraphs, the ligature of sentences, in the fatty bellies of rounded letters. The pages of the book are a stage for the tussle between the third-person narration of Lia’s story, in a typeface of normal weighting, and the first-person voice of the cancer inhabiting Lia’s body, in bold. As the story unfolds, with Lia becoming weaker and her cancer stronger, the text becomes increasingly bold and then entirely so. What Lia’s cancer ‘says’ also changes. Its monologue becomes less internalised, less about abstracted whirlings through flesh, blood, and bone. It begins to see through Lia’s eyes. It uses Lia’s voice to speak. She and the cancer become one. Lia’s body is ‘our’ body; the cancer refers to itself and Lia as ‘we’ (266) (275). On the home straight, the cancer uses ‘I’ again. But this time it’s not only talking about itself, but Lia too. At one point a singular ‘I’ is printed so big it takes up a whole page (426).
Rather paradoxically, and maybe even troublingly, I felt closer to, more intimate with, the cancer taking possession of Lia’s body than I did Lia. The third-person narration of Lia’s story, split between the present-day fallout from her diagnosis and her adolescent goings-on at a pastoral English vicarage twenty-plus years previous, is traditional, almost old-fashioned, clipped. The first-person voice of Lia’s cancer, on the other hand (really it’s inaccurate to call it ‘Lia’s cancer’: there’s a primal, ancient, omnipotent, uncontainable edge to it), is gleeful, jokerish, charismatic; Lewis Carol’s Cheshire Cat welcoming the carnage wrought by its cellular cousins. The cancer is at least one step ahead of Lia at all times and, therefore, so are we, the readers. In a remarkable moment of dramatic irony, we find out the cancer is in Lia’s brain before she’s told ‘It’s in your brain. Here’ and then ‘It’s everywhere’ by her oncologist (255).
In Intoxicated by My Illness, a collection of essays about dying from cancer, the New York Times’ critic Anatole Broyard quipped that ‘Being ill and dying is largely, to a great degree, a matter of style’. In Maps of Our Specular Bodies, Mortimer ably captures an experience of cancer specifically, and the experience of terminal illness more generally, by treating dying and death in line with Broyard’s ‘matter of style’–a style which can only be realised through a radical exploration of form. Indeed, it’s in Mortimor’s eclectic font selection, in the width and the depth of her margins and breaks, in her choice of when the typeface is bold, and when it is not, that the utter horror of Lia’s joyful, unstoppable cancer is most effectively rendered. Word by word, cell by cell, we watch as the book, the body, is broken down and turned into something else.
 Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness: And Other Writings on Life and Death (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992) 61.