I realise this is meant to be a book review blog and not a medical blog, but my most recent medical history ties in rather too well to this book. Three months ago I was officially diagnosed with a chronic illness – not terminal, but the need for injections every three months for the rest of my life, among other things, isn’t exactly ideal. Of course I’m lucky it’s not more serious than it is, but I’m still coming to terms with it – and that’s when this book came into my life. I had received a Waterstones gift card from my aunt and uncle for my birthday and was having a peaceful afternoon browsing the shelves, not looking for anything in particular. The title caught my eye so I picked the book up – and as soon as I read the first paragraph I knew this was one I needed to buy.
Having read this first paragraph, I went on to read the blurb:
Please Read This Leaflet Carefully, the debut novel from Norwegian writer and translator Karen Havelin, is the story of a woman whose body has become her enemy.
The novel tracks backward, from 2016 until 1995, etching details of daily life into a gripping and darkly humorous bildungsroman, about the intricacies of love and life in a fragile body.
We meet Laura Fjellstad first as she works and cares for her young daughter, while struggling with debilitating pain and endometriosis, an invisible chronic illness.
As the reader moves in reverse to meet Laura’s younger and somewhat healthier selves (a hopeful bride in New York, a baby queer in Paris, a figure skater in Norway) we uncover her tireless work to gain control of her identity, her illness and the conflicting demands made by doctors, friends, lovers and family.
Man Booker Prize-winning author Paul Beatty says most books about disease try to describe the pain; told in poetic whisper, Karen Havelin’s debut novel lets pain speak for itself. It’s a book that dares you be nosy, to eavesdrop and listen in to a stoic young woman whom no one noticed until she began to disappear, her body disintegrating from the inside out until there’s nothing left but searing agony and almost impossibly―a burning triumph.
Jarringly funny and perceptive; an intimate reckoning with the inner demons and precarity of everyday life, unpacked through the very specific lens of a woman with chronic pain.
If I hadn’t already been so gripped by the first paragraph, this would have definitely persuaded me to make my purchase.
This book was a profoundly honest exploration of what it’s like to live with a chronic illness, and as it was told backwards I was able to see the deterioration of Laura’s body and mind in reverse. Reading the final chapter, where Laura is excited for the future and all the promise it holds, was heartbreaking – and it made me want to read the book backwards in order to more fully capture just how much her pain affects her thoughts, her body, her entire life as it progresses. As the book was so introspective it was more of an exploration of character than it was a book driven by plot, and so at times I was a little uncertain as to what was happening when thanks to the time jumps. But what was more important than the overall narrative – to me, at least – was the way Havelin’s writing so eloquently expressed my exact sentiments in relation to my own health journey.
The feeling you’re being a burden or overwhelming people, not wanting to inconvenience them:
The fear and catastrophising of my anxious thoughts:
And of course the overwhelming desire to be as you appear – not unwell, not in pain:
I found myself taking pictures every few pages or so, and found it difficult to narrow those pictures down to make this review less rambling and more succinct. I realise that this book will not be to everyone’s taste, and I’m well aware that my own personal experiences coloured my enjoyment – if that is indeed the word I’m looking for – of this book. I’m also well aware that this has become less of a review, more of a post full of pertinent quotations, but I can’t express my sentiments better at present than how Havelin does through the character of Laura. As well the representation of chronic illness, the novel also explores Laura’s coming to terms with her identity beyond it – although this, too, felt very personal to me.
Although my condition is not as severe as Laura’s, and my symptoms are relatively mild, the book still spoke to me on a number of levels, and I’m so grateful I had that time to properly browse the shelves at the bookshop, to find this book when I would get so much out of it. For all of its exploration of illness, pain, fractured bodies and relationships, there is also humour in Havelin’s work – if somewhat dark, thanks to the nature of the book’s subject matter.
I don’t know if I would have read this book were it not for my current circumstances, but I would recommend it to everyone, complicated medical history or not, if you want to gain a better understanding of living with illness that won’t get better. Even if it’s uncomfortable, at least you’re not reading this in the waiting room, having prepped for a colonoscopy – unless you are, in which case, good luck.
The subtitle of this novel is ‘Keep the leaflet. You may need to read it again.’ – and I’m certain I will.