As a break from the Man Booker long-list, I sat down to read two books sent to me by a friend. They were both by Bernadine Bishop, a woman of many parts. At Oxford at the time of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, contemporary of Margaret Drabble, who was a close friend, she wrote novels in her twenties, she then went on to teach at a London Comprehensive school, trained as a psychotherapist, married had children, retired – was diagnosed with cancer, wrote three more novels. The Street is due to be published posthumously, she died in 2013. A full life, by all accounts well lived.
It is said that coincidences do not happen, I have heard this said anyway and do not believe it, but every now and then, reading a novel, one thinks that could never have happened in a million years. Not so.
All the time I was reading Unexpected Lessons in Love, I had two friends very much in mind, one alive and one sadly dead. The friend who died, died as a result of an operation to reverse a colostomy, or stoma as it is more properly called. Bernadine Bishop also had the type of cancer that leads to a stoma, a permanent bag outside your body which replaces anal evacuation. Too much information, you might think. But this novel revolves around the relationship of two women, both meet at a stoma clinic, and make friends. Their thoughts about their condition, their perceptions of themselves before and after having discovered that they were among the people living with cancer, rather than the people who lived the other side of the glass wall that separates the rest of humanity are the central theme of this book. So reading this book really helped me imaginatively to understand two things I hadn’t really grasped before: the lives of those on the inside of living with cancer and the lives of those who are not. There are several other threads in this compact and insightful novel, and obviously the title gives you a clue to the main thread – love. Maternal and paternal; married and unmarried love and how one might become the other; and the love, uncomplicated and unconditional of a child towards those that love him/her. Another principal theme is loss: imagined, experienced, real.
The two women, Cecelia and Helen are very different. Cecelia, a therapist, has been married and had two children, lost a husband and is now living with Tim. Helen, a novelist, has never been married, is now in her sixties and has a rather lonely life; she rather latches on to her friendship with Cecelia, but as the novel progresses it slowly becomes apparent that their needs, though different are mutual.
There is a remarkable passage, when Helen, the “weaker” of the two has a scan that indicates the return of cancer and she shares with Cecelia how she came out from under the weight of this diagnosis:
“One was I realised we are all programmed to die. All animals are. This doesn’t sound very profound, but it was. And it still is, hours later. What it comes to is that perhaps deep down we don’t actually fear death. We just think we do. The convention is we do. The reality is we take it in our stride.”
Cecelia was silent, intent.
“The next thing that happened was I realised that nothing bad is actually happening to me now. This minute. Of course I am terribly afraid it will. Fear of the unknown. But at the moment, nothing is actually happening. I feel well. What I am agonising with is the pain of fear of pain, not the pain of pain itself. And who knows but what it goes on like that, each day? Each day, of itself, bearable. That’s not new or profound, either. But both those thoughts did the work in me as if they were. As if they were illuminations, inspirations. No, these words are too fancy. Something much more mundane and solid. I felt myself calming and expanding. Not drowning but waving. Almost.”
There are in this book several points of contact that whirl forwards and backwards wrapping the characters in a series of closely bound relationships which untangle towards the end. It is a profoundly moving story, beautifully told, especially when you consider the circumstance of its telling.
The friend who sent it to me, also living with cancer, was given it by the author’s son because they both toil in the field of charities dealing with cancer in childhood, in different capacities. What is even stranger though, is that during the time the Bernadine was a therapist, this friend’s daughter went to her for help. Furthermore, the author was known by the widow of my friend who died and treated during her cancer by his brother. But none of these links were known until one of them read this book.
The second book, Hidden Knowledge, is directly linked to the fact that Bernadine was a therapist, and her work with the troubled mind must have informed parts of this novel. We have three siblings, Hereward, Romola and Roger Tree, all now grown up and all childless for one reason or another. Hereward, the eldest and a successful novelist, has a much younger partner, Carina and he is about to go into hospital for a fairly routine heart operation; Romola is a head of department in a school and Roger a Roman Catholic priest, lately unfrocked. From these branches hang the rest of the novel, the reasons that Roger is staying with Romola, and the people it involves all become part of this story, and all of them one way or another are not being entirely truthful with their nearest and dearest, for different reasons. So when one of them does indeed begin to tell the truth, the bravery of that and its outcomes is germane to the way the novel unfolds.
The Street will come out this year, should you decide to buy either of these last two books you will be happy to know that all royalties from this book and her last book to be published next year are coming to CLIC Sargent and that her son has set up The Bernardine Bishop Appeal for the CLIC Sargent N Ireland Home from Home Appeal.