Nominated for every major nonfiction award in the United Kingdom and the winner of Britain’s Wellcome Book Prize, The Iceberg is an unconventional memoir. It doesn’t list biographical data (parents, spouses, births, siblings, education, career history, etc.). It isn’t always easy to read. And yet, The Iceberg is an important work written by a brutally honest woman navigating grief. As author Marion Coutts details the two years following her husband’s diagnosis of a brain tumor, readers will feel the couple’s continuing sense of gratitude for the marvel that is daily life. Coutts, her family, and
her friends keep discovering ways to live and love in the eye of the hurricane that has become their new normal.
Surgeries, radiation, chemo, treatments for infections, hospitalizations and eventual hospice care are described without cliches, without overdone physical descriptions, with a realism focused on what is actually key (such as Tom always being close to the center of everything). Her narrative doesn’t necessarily lack hope for the future but spends more time grounded in trying to enjoy each day, each stage, each remaining capability.
Time hasn’t stopped even now. But it spools new. I can feel it--not faster, not slower but with an undertone, a tiny subjective pulse.
Tom Lubbach, Coutts’ deceased husband, was a man of letters, the chief art critic for a British publication. As his brain tumor progressively impacts his communication skills, his wife and friends fight valiantly to enable his continued work and bring forth additional forums for his artistic and literary talent to be enjoyed by others. He is a marvel, facing the coming end with good humor and aplomb.
So what did you do when death came to your house?
Making this depiction of the heartbreaking eventuality of death even more poignant is the presence of Coutts and Lubbach’s very young son. Not even two when the dire news is delivered, his growing language skills and comprehension provide a vicious juxtaposition to Tom’s dwindling abilities. The child is unable to truly grasp what is happening to his world.
We continued in the same way as before.
What is that, a failure of the imagination? Are you in denial?
This is not wholly true; we continue in the same way as before but in parentheses. My thinking has switched its grammar… Uncertainty is our present and our future…
But the surface of us appears to be very much the same and this is an
early stage intimation of a radical marvel--the flicker between the
steadiness of the quotidian and the crash-consciousness of its ending.
Ev is spared the violence of knowledge but all the rest he
experiences with us. We will learn to be articulate about this together.
The hoped-for village of friends and family provide little Ev with some lighthearted childhood normalcy. Yet readers can see that even under the best of circumstances, with legions of friends and family rallying around a couple grappling with the unfathomable, dealing with death is an ultimately intimate affair. Coutts provides a heartfelt vision of the brutally isolating disaster that is the terminal illness of a beloved spouse. The reprinted emails the couple sent during the ordeal illustrate perfectly how it is impossible for brief communications to convey the ongoing medical, professional, and emotional carnage.
Particularly brutal to the couple, the loss of names:
My name is a word like any other and though it means all of me to
him, just like any other it may be lost. This is the trajectory of disease
and if we think about it, it is a natural progression. But we do not think
about it because disease is a wave and we are always, always in its wake.
Like survivors floating behind we are knocked stupid. We must scavenge, pick
things up and construct anew out of flotsam.
Coutts does an admirable job presenting a sense of Tom and his ability to remain true to his surest sense of self. Yet neither Tom or Marion are depicted as saints--blue moods, exhaustion, arguments, venting, regrets--Coutts relates plenty of these dark moments and thoughts. These passages will be extremely helpful to others caught in the inescapable net of devastating illness.
I did not read this book quickly, in part because such sadness cannot help but mark your current mood, but also to savor the presentation and the honorable sentiments. I have no doubt son Ev will forever wish he had clearer personal memories of his father. But in The Iceberg, his mother has given him a golden gift: a clear depiction of his father’s loving spirit in the face of a cruel fate.
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Leslie Nichols Raith, 2016