(Apologies for the teensy cover picture–can’t find a bigger one on the Intarwebz. For a better look at that purdy cover, please head on over to the author’s website.)
Books about cancer seem to gravitate around me. I don’t know if I purposefully seek them out—maybe the Universe is just hurling them my way, perhaps sensing that I need them. Cancer has become a too-constant part of my life for the past couple of months, too-constant and a too-immediate being. Damn it.
I received Cleavage by Theanna Bischoff in the mail a week ago—it was supposed to be part of the Eco-Libris campaign a few months back, but there was a mix-up in the post office and I received it too late. But, I think, just in time–just the right time. [A note to the Universe: I know what you’re up to, okay?]
Cleavage tracks the patchwork musings of Leah, who, at twenty-four years old and two years into a relationship, discovers she has breast cancer. Told in fragments reminiscent of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, Cleavage details Leah’s struggles with her illness and treatments, the conflict between her disease and her boyfriend, her ambivalence toward her job, and a long-standing feud with her mother and only sister.
Let us enumerate. (I tell myself it is only fitting—fragments and all that. But I delude myself, I know:)
1] The novel is a mix of stream of consciousness, very short scenes, some interactive bits like scanned copies of medical papers and recipes and postcards and notes. But it’s storytelling and precise language that marks a writer who’s comfortable with her style and technique, and the novel manages a broad narrative with ease. It never seems lazy–and I’ve seen my share of “fragments” for fragments’s sake, hinting at an inability to maintain an extended narrative. Bischoff pulls off an ambitious scope, and she does it admirably–a novel in fragments that never gets pretentious, never gets tedious, never becomes an impenetrable fog. The structure conveys the complexities of Leah Jordan’s life, and does it in a comprehensible fashion. In a nutshell: fragments=works. Well, it usually does–some scenes required a little backtracking on my part, as the fragments defy chronology and setting. So, to amend that nutshell: fragments=generally works.
2] Cleavage is an affective little novel with a big heart, told in Leah Jordan’s off-beat and slightly self-deprecating voice. Leah is quirky, and as an unreliable a narrator as anyone–an observation confirmed by the author’s afterword. It’s a voice that draws you in nonetheless. It’s like Leah’s a friend you’ve known all your life–she has her flaws, she has her moments, and she’s wholly human. And she’s occasionally annoying. She’s afraid, but at the same time she uses that fear to get by. “Don’t use the cancer card,” she’s been warned, and although Leah doesn’t consciously, it’s a fact that will always be associated with her, and it’s now constantly affecting her outlook. She has her cynicism [and some of the remarks are simply put, and most probably justified, and just a little heartbreaking]:
I am sick of the pink ribbons. Slap a pink ribbon on stationery, stuffed poodles, bracelets, toques, car windshields, lapels. Silly, smiling women walking for a cure, shouting empowerment in the air, clutching their mothers and daughters to their chests. They think the pink ribbons are points–collect enough and breast cancer will disappear. They don’t understand. This game has endless levels. You can play as long as you want.
But it’s a young life now deeply marked, there’s no escaping that reality. It has leeched into Leah’s perceptions and her relationships with people–with her parents, her sister, her friends, her boyfriend Justin.
3] Although this is Leah’s story, it’s also Leah and Justin’s story, how their relationship progresses and suffers–directly or indirectly because of the cancer. Leah’s looking at Justin in a new way, and I suppose it’s the cancer that’s allowing her to do this–perhaps she and Justin never were the best couple out there, or at least a good-enough couple. But I like Justin. He’s funny, or at least he tries to. He’s sweet, and sometimes he can be in utter denial. But I like Justin. He can be smothering–that is, I can see how Leah might think he’s smothering–but, well, I like him. But, well, my opinion doesn’t matter in that relationship, so, huh..
4] And now, for some “spoilers” that are for my own reading-journal-record: I suppose I admire the fact that there are no resolutions. Nothing with the sister, with the mother, and Leah’s relationship with Justin is at its most ambiguous. I admire it, but do I like it? It’s been a couple of days, and it doesn’t bother me much. (Yes, I know that’s not exactly the best vote of confidence.) Ultimately, though, it was a good read. It managed to sweep me away for a few hours, and at the same time brought me closer to the issues I’ve been needing to deal with. Ah, the paradox of good literature. (Or I think that’s a paradox, haha.) I’d love to read more of Bischoff’s–she’s an excellent character writer, as well as a great stylist, and as far as debut novels go, Cleavage hints at good things to come.