Most of the events and interactions in Katherine Brabon’s Body Friend occur in the months immediately after the narrator undergoes major surgery, to ameliorate some of the effects of her chronic autoimmune illness. She returns to work – and by extension, to the greater social world – towards the end of the novel. On her first day back, she feels herself “on a pendulum between two different selves”. One of these selves is distant and almost skittish, longing for nothing more than to be alone and back at home. The other is “a more clear and confident person” who moves and speaks with ease, and, importantly, “control[s] the illness” – or, at least, her reaction to its fluctuations and pain.
This is the duality at the centre of the novel – and it is its driving force and source of tension too. The narrator often thinks about the ways in which chronic illness resists narrative – on top of having no clear beginning and no end, it lacks any kind of trajectory or progression. She sometimes struggles to reckon with this, both because tidy narratives are so difficult to resist and because it is difficult to find meaning in their absence. But this is also a concern of the novel itself: given that narrative, however loose its shape, is integral to the novel as a form, finding a way that a novel might nonetheless contain such an experience is central to Brabon’s project.
Body Friend is structured around cycles, repetitions and pendulum swings between states. Seasons and series of relapses and recoveries are important scaffolding devices too. But always, this sense of doubling and duality guides the progression of the novel.
After her surgery, the narrator meets in succession two women whom she recognises almost viscerally – they each bear a striking physical resemblance to her and she knows that their bodies too are subjected to chronic pain. The first of these, Frida, is a woman determined to tame her illness by pushing her body out into the world – she swims daily and exhorts the narrator to “just be your body”, a statement the narrator finds “radical” and a powerful inversion of her medicalised encounters. The second woman, Sylvia, believes in rest as respite, and in withdrawal and a quiet convalescence – in respecting the limits of pain and living more simply and gently as a result. The narrator spends time with each of these “doppelgängers” in turn and, depending on the state of her body and its illness, each of them embodies a different way of living with pain and disability.
The narrator’s body friends are named, of course, for Frida Kahlo and Sylvia Plath – two iconic artists whose work centres the body, illness and pain, albeit in very different ways. In two separate chapters, the narrator thinks about Kahlo’s plaster corsets, which she always painted, as if decorating her body, and about Plath’s poem “In Plaster”, in which a plaster cast begins to threaten and almost subsume the woman whose leg it encases. The duality is obviously present here again: “Frida’s body was always the first work”, an act of defiance and expression, the narrator states, whereas Plath’s poem leads her to think about the porous boundaries between self and illness, or body and illness, that chronic disease can produce.
Some of the most touching sections of the book look to art for other kinds of corporeal recognition: paintings by Renoir and Rubens, where the narrator notices swollen knuckles and curled, arthritic hands; Matisse’s cut-out lithographs of figures bending or tucked into the frame and Dora Maar’s Double Portrait, where the same face looks in two simultaneous directions, as if, says the narrator, “one half is in pain while the other half feels perfectly well”. It is an attempt to trace a lineage and history for the bodies of the narrator and her two friends – an attempt to make visible their invisible illness, to find a testament to their pain and stories that might reflect their own.
Body Friend is a deeply interior, thoughtful book. Its language is startling for its poetic tendencies – it is rhythmic and observant, and liltingly musical – as well as its clarity and sharp concision. Brabon’s prose is one of the deepest pleasures of the novel. Another is her ability to capture so much of the complex and often bewildering emotion and experience of chronic illness – including depictions of days spent staring at a wall, flashes of envy, anger and quiet fear. At times the tension between the subject matter and the form doesn’t quite hold and the pacing of the novel begins to lag as a result – but despite this, Brabon’s determination to resist the expectations and narratives that are never in keeping with what actually happens in an unwell body, and to seek out new kinds of telling instead, is the truly remarkable achievement of this book.
Late in the novel, thinking of her experience and her new friendships, the narrator claims she “did not seek out the doppelgänger”. Instead, she says that the “doubling, tripling” of her self and narrative may be the only means she has “for rational examination of the self”. It is this, after all, that Body Friend does so well – observing the unwell person and their illness closely, carefully and with great complexity – and always from the inside.
Ultimo Press, 272pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "Body Friend".
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