The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta LacksIn the same way we sometimes debate whether the story should be seen as an entirely separate entity to the writer, so too scientists perceive a sample of cell tissue as separate to the human body it was extracted from.

Except that it is not possible to extract a story from a writer’s imagination without their consent. 

Henrietta Lacks was a young mother in her early thirties when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that would quickly take her life. She was fortunate to live close to John Hopkins hospital, built in 1889 as a charity hospital for the sick and poor, to ensure equal access to medical care for all, no matter their race, status, income or any other characteristic that might have otherwise given cause to discriminate in many of the hospitals at the time.

Before undergoing treatment, one of the Doctors took a tissue sample of both her healthy cells and the cancerous cells, as he had been doing to most patients, in an effort to try to find cells that would continue to replicate without dying – searching for the elusive “immortal” cell. It had never been done successfully with human cells.

He succeeded and the cells became known the world over – as he gave them away freely – as HeLa cells, immortal human cells that never died and could be used over and over to test for cures to disease and to observe how cells react to numerous variables, furthering science in ways unimaginable previously.

‘In culture, cancer cells can go on dividing indefinitely, if they have a continual supply of nutrients, and thus are said to be “immortal”. A striking example  is a cell line that has been reproducing in culture since 1951. (Cells of this line are called HeLa cells because their original source was a tumour removed from a woman called Henrietta Lacks.)’

Few paused to ask about the woman behind these cells, what was her story, how her family felt about the multi million dollar research industry that made great strides in science , yes, but also made entrepreneurial types wealthy in the process.

Rebecca Skloot first heard of the HeLa cells in 1988, she was 16-years-old, sitting in her biology class listening to a lecture on cell culture by her instructor Donald Defler. He described the many things that have been learned by being able to grow cells in culture, indicating that much we knew today was due to the proliferation of cells made available thanks to Henrietta Lacks.

‘HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years, ” Defler said.

Henrietta_LacksSkloot made Henrietta the subject of her research for 10 years in the creation of this thorough, respectful account of the life of Henrietta Lacks and her journey to uncover the events of the time within the context of what was the norm in her day.

In much of her location research, when she travelled to meet and interview people, she was accompanied by Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, a passionate woman, unable to find peace in her own life, until she had helped bring her mother’s story to light.

Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia in August 1920, in a small shack overlooking a busy train depot, where freight cars constantly shunted to and fro. She lived there with her parents and 8 older siblings until 1924, when her mother died giving birth to her tenth child.

Her father lacked the patience for raising children, so took them all to his family in Clover, Virginia, where they farmed tobacco and split the children between those who could take them. Henrietta went to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks and her nine-year-old-cousin Day, left there after his birth, by his mother.

‘A twelve year old cousin and midwife named Munchie delivered him, blue as a stormy sky and not breathing. A white doctor came to the home-house with his derby and walking stick, wrote “stillborn” on Day’s birth certificate, then drove his horse-drawn buggy back to town, leaving a cloud of red dust behind.’

Their life there, became one filled with chores, waking at 4 o’clock in the morning, feeding animals, tending the family garden and then off to the tobacco fields to work.

Skloot finds out about her childhood, her marriage to Day, the 10 years they were married and had their children and the diagnosis that she kept from everyone, until it became obvious she was going to die.

It is tragic, sad and yet also a brilliant and informative story and piece of scientific medical history that reads like a novel and brings our awareness to the many who unknowingly make sacrifices for the better of others and that always present aspect of commercial vultures, hovering in the wings, recognising an opportunity to profit.

It rightly reveals and celebrates the life of the little-known woman behind those cells, Henrietta Lacks, who died at a young age from a ravaging cervical cancer, her children’s struggle, the family’s history and all that is kept from them in the name of science.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was one of my Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2015.

The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teulé tr. by Melanie Florence #TranslationThursday

Poisoning (3)A real-life character tour de force from French author Jean Teulé featuring a famous female serial killer from the nineteenth century.

Hélène Jégado is warned about and thus introduced to the deathly effects of certain plants and flowers from a young age, she learns what to watch out for, including their superstitions.

‘Maman, who’s this Ankou you’re always talking about?’

Her mother tells her he is Death’s worker, the girl becomes obsessed with this idea, and makes it her vocation to fulfill his wishes, the only way she knows how.

Beginning with the demise of her very own maman.

Ankou‘The Ankou wears  a cloak and a broad hat,’ said Anne Jégado, sitting down again. ‘He always carries a scythe with a sharpened blade. He’s often depicted as a skeleton whose head swivels constantly at the top of his spine like a sunflower on its stem so that with one glance he can take in the whole region his mission covers.’

 

A story of the travels and inclinations of a girl who after poisoning her mother, travels from household to household as a domestic cook unable to restrain herself from eventually succumbing to the desire to add that little something extra to the recipe, her speciality the infamous soupes-aux-herbes.

Her deathly intent, seemingly existed without malice or evil inclination, more of an addiction, a calling, a macabre loyalty to that voice in her head, the legend of Ankou, death’s helper, leading her on, guiding her towards the next victim.

Each chapter begins with a small map of the Breton region, indicating her journey, where she will travel to next, until finally, very much later, she is confronted and must face her accusers.

Macabre, yet told with an element of detachment that stops it from being sinister. Entertaining and fascinating, a little insight into another era and a moment of unforgettable history in the north of France.

Jégado

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher Gallic Books.

Segu by Maryse Condé tr. by Barbara Bray

As I have been on something of a reading journey through Maryse Condé, I want to capture a little background leading up to how she came to write this masterpiece of historical fiction, set in a time of major change in this part of Africa where her ancestors came from.

Background

 Maryse Condé grew up in a large black bourgeoise family in Guadeloupe, well-educated, with regular family visits to Paris, in fact her parents felt French and were surprised when people they deemed of a lesser status than they, (like Parisian cafe waiters) commented on how well they spoke French, in a patronising way.

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé was the youngest of eight children, her mother married an older, financially and professionally stable man, she was a formidable teacher, a staunch, authoritative force to be reckoned with.

She died when Maryse was 14 and it wasn’t until years later that Condé began to question why her mother had been the way she had been with her and others, wondering what unseen forces had been pushing from within. this led her to research her grandmothers story, which she published as the novel Victoire, My Mother’s Mother (reviewed here).

Her own childhood she writes about in the beautiful set of vignettes, autobiographical essays collected in Tales of the Heart, Stories from My Childhood (reviewed here).

What she discovered in researching her mother and grandmother’s lives was a history of struggle, of single, compromised women, forced by the abuses inflicted upon them – for which they were harshly judged, though little more was expected of them – to raise their children alone and make do as best they could.

While Condé’s mother was fortunate to have been gifted the opportunity to acquire an education, it was a favour she wanted little or nothing to do with, never sharing the reasons  or people behind it, for her mother Victoire, had been the open mistress of her employer, a friend of his wife, a situation her daughter detested and determined to remove herself far from.

Embarking on her own education, the young Maryse Condé, discovered that though she’d had the best education possible, enabling her to find success in France and Guadeloupe, she learned little about her own history or that of  her people. It was a gap in her education she couldn’t live with, that she wished to fill and it sent her off on a historical pursuit to understand both her maternal history and the voyage of her ancestors.

HeremakhononHer novel Heremakhonon(1976), which I’ve not yet read, is a semi-autobiographical story of a sophisticated Caribbean woman, teaching in Paris, who travels to West Africa in search of her roots and an aspect of her identity she has no connection with.

It is an insightful and somewhat disappointing experience, however for Maryse Condé personally, it was a springboard to the research and work that would follow, as her subsequent novels explore issues of race, gender and culture in a variety of historical periods and locations.

From this context, we come to what is considered a significant and radiant accomplishment, Segu (1984), set in the 19th century Kingdom of Segu (contemporary Mali), entering the soul of the African continent, at a point of prophetic enlightenment, as multiple forces and influences enter into the lives of those, who until now have known great spiritual power and authority.

Review

SeguIn 1797, the kingdom of Segu is thriving, its noblemen are prospering, its warriors are prominent and powerful, at their peak. 

Their people, the Bambara are guided by story-telling griots and divining priests, their lives ruled by the elements and tradition. However their visions fall short in preparing their followers for what is to come.

From the East, religion revolutions have spread Islam across two-thirds of West Africa; from the West, despite laws passed to stop it, the slave trade continues to flourish, and from within merchants make new demands for tropical goods, developing legitimate commerce.

Segu follows the life and descendants of Dousika Traore. He is the king’s most trusted advisor and the fate of his four sons epitomise the challenges that threaten to tear their family and society apart, in this historical turning point of African history. 

Dousika falls out of favour with the King and his son’s each go off in search of adventure outside the kingdom, where they discover quite a different perception of their people and their race.

Tiekoro, renounces his people’s religion, travels North to become a religious scholar and embraces Islam. He is by turn revered, scorned, returns to his home and becomes respected. However his position is always in flux and the balance of power between peoples and their associated beliefs are continuously challenged, he falls in and out of favour.

Siga, initially accompanies his brother and must survive in the same town, but without the introductions his brother has received to help him, he retains his belief in the Bambara gods, defending tradition and becomes a merchant. Although he was born on the same day as Tiekoro, his mother was a slave, so he must accept a less ambitious, less well-connected future.

Naba, is snatched by slave traders and sold and somehow ends up as a slave on a plantation in Brazil. He escapes, only to live on another plantation, a kind of free slave, to be near the woman he loves, whose children will reconnect with the family through a series of coincidences.

Malobali, the youngest, could no longer bear to listen to his older prodigal brother preaching, storms off one day in contempt, never to return. He becomes a mercenary, spending a period of time in a makeshift army, eventually converting to Christianity to improve his chances and has an encounter with the spirit of one of his brothers.

Based on actual events, Segu transports the reader to a fascinating time in history, capturing the earthy spirituality, religious fervour, and violent nature of a people and a growing nation trying to cope with jihads, national, tribal and family rivalries, racism and suspicion, amid the vagaries of commerce.

It shines a light on the impact of cross tribal marriage and partnership, of slavery, both that perpetuated by the Europeans and from within the African continent. The role of the son and the daughter, the rules of marriage, the perceptions of religion, the rise of Islam, the practices of fetishists and superstitions of their followers. The importance of relaying history through the storytelling griots, an inherited role, passed down from family member to family member.

Intuition

Just as with Condé’s previous work, here too there is communication and connections between family members not present, whether alive or manifesting as departed ancestors, they enter via dreams, intuition, providing guidance and reassurance. The presence and guiding voice of ancestors and the reincarnation of souls is important, as is the effect of love/lust on each of them.

As with the best of historical fiction, Segu takes us through a period of significant change, by engaging the reader with a family and its members, its traditions and those who wish to rebel against them, the will to modernise, to make their way forward in a world that is rapidly changing.

It engagingly portrays the balance of power and perceptions between people from different ethnic groups, where one is judged on everything except character. We encounter historic family feuds, feuds between peoples, religion and the rise of Islam, fetish priests, slaves, concubines and nobles, a complex society.

It was a deliberately slow read for me, but at the same time riveting, a book that scratches at the surface of a significant and fascinating subject and does wonders to assist in helping that era and people become more understood.

#BigMagic, Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Signature (2)Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best seller Eat Pray Love and more recently in 2013, the historical, botanical novel The Signature of All Things (reviewed here) has thought a lot about Creativity, so much so that she gave a TED Talk on the subject.

Tapping into one’s creative life can often be referred to as a sea of obstacles, fears, procrastinations and can tend to focus on what one lacks, rather than the small steps we can take in pursuit of it.

In Big Magic, Gilbert writes a lot about how we get in the way of our own creativity, covering a multitude of sins, some that we may find relevant, others not, depending where we are on the path to pursuing it.

The book is separated into six sections, Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity where she discusses many aspects of e creative process, her own experiences and many anecdotes from well-known personalities.

One of the best is from Richard Ford, author of Canada (reviewed here); he gave this response to an audience member who recounted all the things that he and Ford had in common; age, background, themes, the fact they’d both been writing all their life.
The big difference being this person had never been published, they were heartbroken, a “spirit crushed by all the rejection and disappointment”. He added that he did not want to be told to persevere, that’s all he ever from anyone.

Ford told him he should quit.

The audience froze: What kind of encouragement was this?

Canada1Ford went on: “I say this to you only because writing is clearly bringing you no pleasure. It is only bringing you pain. our time on earth is short and should be enjoyed. You should leave this dream behind and go find something else to do with your life. Travel, take up new hobbies, spend time with your family and friends, relax. but don’t write anymore, because it’s obviously killing you.”

There was a long silence.

Then Ford smiled and added, almost as an afterthought:

“However, I will say this. If you happen to discover, after a few years away from writing, that you have found nothing that takes its place in your life – nothing that fascinates you, or moves you, or inspires you to the same degree that writing once did…well, then, sir, I’m afraid you will have no choice but to persevere.”

She writes about her theory that ideas are a separate entity to ourselves and if we do not pursue them when they come knocking in the form of inspiration, we risk them leaving us altogether and being passed on to someone else. it is a little like when the momentum and inspiration has left us, which can also happen if we put something’s aside for too long, it becomes difficult if not impossible to renter the zone to complete it.
She gives an example of a novel she was very passionate and inspired about, an Amazonian novel, which she mentioned to her friend Ann Patchett, who curious, as she was at the time writing a novel set in the same location, asked her what it was about.

042812_1839_StateofWond1.jpgGilbert gave her a brief outline and asked Patchett what her novel was about and she repeated almost word for word, the same idea – fitting into her theory that the idea had visited her and because she had put it aside for a couple of years, it left and was passed on to Patchett and became State of Wonder (reviewed here).

It’s necessary to read her quaint theories with an open mind, Big Magic itself is the label she applies to all those instances of coincidence, luck, the unexplained, it is a form of belief in universal guidance or positive thinking, one conveniently packaged as Big Magic and it is a helpful philosophy certainly.

Fortunately, we need not put all out faith in it, she pulls back on the inclination of some to advise us to seek out our passion, especially when many struggle to find or identify such a thing. She favours curiosity over passion.

Forget about passion, pursue curiosity. Curiosity is accessible to everyone, while passion can seem intimidating and out of reach.

‘…curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming and democratic entity…curiosity only ever asks one simple question of you:

“Is there anything you’re interested in?”

Anything?

Even a tiny bit?

No matter how mundane or small?

Curiosity is like a clue, you follow it, see where it takes you and continue along that train of thought or research. It may lead somewhere or nowhere, it doesn’t matter, momentum is what’s important. She gives the example of following an interest in gardening, that lead to researching and eventually writing that much inspired historical novel The Signature of All Things.

She also acknowledges that the necessity to achieving a creative life of note takes discipline, luck and talent and puts more faith in the former, than the latter.

She doesn’t regard herself as being endowed with greater than average talent, she is not a perfectionist – admitting to flaws in here work she knew were there, but that weren’t worth the effort to pursue in the grand scheme of things. An interesting observation, as one of those flaws was the one under-developed character in her last novel, something I noted in my review, that she admits beta readers warned her of, but that she deliberately did not pursue,in some cases the effort required to fix something is greater than the reward it will bring.

Overall, a fast, easy read, that can act as a reminders and a motivator to us in relation to any creative endeavour, it’s one of those books to be read with a filter, let some of it pass and take the gems for what they’re worth to you now.

“Possessing a creative mind is like having a border collie for a pet. it needs to work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble. Give your mind a job to do, or else it will find a job to do, and you might not like the job it invents.”

The Colour by Rose Tremain

The Colour

It’s been a long time since I have read a Rose Tremain book; I think Music and Silence was the last one I read, I remember that she is a captivating storyteller and creates interesting characters, as she has done here with The Colour.

I was intrigued to read it too, because it is set in New Zealand (where I am from originally), a location rare to find in literature outside homegrown, Rose Tremain being a British author.

Similarly to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (reviewed here), The Colour is set in the South Island during the gold rush period. TLuminarieshough in contrast to that epic tome that won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, Rose Tremain’s novel features only one man seduced by the gold or and gives us an insight into two women, Harriet his wife and Lilian his mothers, their hopes, achievements and personal struggles in trying to make a life in this untamed country.

Joseph and Harriet Blackstone depart England as newlyweds, arriving in Christchurch, from where they buy land in isolated countryside near a river, signifying a new beginning for them all including Joseph’s mother Lilian, although she quickly begins to make plans in her head about how she might leave her son’s newly constructed Cob House, to return to the more civilised town. 

Harriet had felt stifled in England and was almost resigned to her state as a spinster governess, until Joseph’s surprise engagement and a chance for her to start anew, to create a new life for them in this foreign land, which bore little of the attitudes and social stratification of home.

“Harriet had asked her new husband to take her with him. She clung to him and pleaded – she who never whined or complained, who carried herself so well. But she was a woman who longed for the unfamiliar and the strange. As a child, she’d seen it waiting for her, in dreams or in the colossal darkness of the sky: some wild world which lay outside the realm of everything she knew.”

Joseph and Lilian were also fleeing something, although their memories and associations were a little more shameful and sinister, secrets they keep from others, that continue to haunt them on the other side of the world, distance found insufficient to wipe their conscience clean of the past.

110611_1523_TheForestfo1.jpgThey know it will be a tough existence and they will need to learn from mistakes, as all pioneers do, but they find the challenges of this harsh Canterbury landscape almost soul destroying and Joseph is quickly lured away by the glitter and promise of gold dust he finds in his river and soon sets off to join the other men, also seduced by their lust for “the colour”, in new goldfields over the Southern Alps, leaving the two women to fend for themselves.

‘I must go,’ he said.  ‘I must go before all the gold is gone.’

‘And if there isn’t gold?’

‘Men are not risking their lives for nothing, Harriet.’

‘Men are risking their lives in the hope of something. That is all.”

‘I have dreams about the Grey River. I shall come back with enough…enough gold to transform our world.’

‘What have we been doing for all these months,’ she said, but endeavouring to “transform our world”?’

Harriet befriends a family that is succeeding in making a living as they hope to, a horse ride away at Orchard House, although they too have their share of difficulty with their son Edwin and his longing for the Maori nanny they’d let go after an accident. Edwin has a strong spiritual connection with Pare, something his parents don’t understand and are afraid of, as they believe her enchantment over him is making him I’ll.

Overall, it is an enjoyable, entertaining and quietly gripping read with a well-rounded character whose development and journey captivates the reader.

Its only weakness for me, was the subplot featuring Pare, the Maori nanny, her superstitions and behaviours seemed odd to me, somewhat fantastical, bordering on magical realism, a little patronising in terms of my understanding and experience of the legends, culture and tradition I grew up with, though perhaps reminiscent of the colonial attitude of that era and beyond.

The Whispering Muse by Sjón tr. Victoria Cribb

Whispering MuseThe Whispering Muse by Icelandic poet, songwriter and novelist Sjón, known for his collaborations with Björk and winner of the Nordic Council Literary Prize (equivalent of the Man Booker Prize) for this novel, was the first book I chose to read for the New year.

I chose it because it’s by an Icelandic author and because it delves into the realm of myth and fable, Alberto Manguel called it:

“an extraordinary, powerful fable – a marvel.”

I loved this gem of a book, which demanded much more from the reader wanting true fulfilment, than the mere 143 pages it was written on.

It is an invitation to embark on the adventures of The Argonauts, as told by the second mate Caeneus, who while voyaging on a ship in 1949 narrates his previous adventures on the ship Argo under Captain Jason in their quest for the Golden Fleece.

“Before embarking on his tales the mate had the habit of drawing a rotten chip of wood from his pocket and holding it to his right ear like a telephone receiver. He would listen to the chip for a minute or two, closing his eyes as if asleep, while under his eyelids his pupils quivered to and fro.”

Not being familiar with the epic poem written by Apollonius of Rhodes, (Hellenistic poet, 3rd century BC) I diverged off course to familiarise myself with its plot, and some of the named characters mentioned, as the book is full of mythological literary references that make a pleasant and fulfilling divergence in its reading, not least of which we learn why Caeneus has much respect for wood, though more is revealed on its significance later.

Set in 1949 as an elderly, eccentric Icelandic man is invited by the father of one of the fans of his work on Nordic culture and fish consumption, to embark on a voyage at sea from Copenhagen to the Black Sea, he recounts his journey as he sees it, while learning about the grand voyage of Caeneus and his many transformations.

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The sources quoted on the last page provide a link to the ancient sparks that ignited the imagination of Sjón. Familiarity with The Argonauts, Medea, Hypsipyle and Metamorphoses would benefit, but the story is equally accessible with superficial knowledge of those stories.

Entertaining, intriguing, intellectually stimulating and fun, what more could one ask for from a book read on the 1st day of the new year 2016.

I scribbled more notes in the margin than I have every done before and I’m still wondering whether the old man might have had a mild dementia, as the latter part of the book has him witnessing some strange, unaccounted for events. Nothing is ever as it seems and a reader’s imagination can contribute as much to the story as one wishes.

“I was thinking: could the voice you detect in the humming of the wood be your own voice? Like the poet who obstinately believes that he is writing about the world but is in reality only telling yet another story about himself?”

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

Tracy Farr’s delightful, fascinating debut novel is the fictional memoir of Dame Lena Gaunt: musician, octogenarian, puffer of exotic substances. It was one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015.

Lena went from a background of playing traditional instruments to becoming a modern musician, being the first theremin player of the twentieth century, an intriguing instrument played through movement but without the musicians hands actually touching the instrument.

Lena Gaunt

From its opening pages where we experience Lena’s daily routine, her strong pull to the sea, The memory of music in her bones, it becomes a book that grows on you until it becomes unputdownable.

“I move my arms in wide arcs in front of me, pushing water out to the sides and back again. I can feel the stretch in my shoulders, the tendons tense and twist. Bubbles form up my arms and, trapped in the tiny pale hairs, tickling like the bead in champagne. Moving my fingers in the water effects tiny changes in the waves that effect bigger movements. Action at a distance; just like playing the theremin.”

Lena Gaunt was an only child, born in Singapore, spending a solitary childhood in the tropics before being sent “back Home” her parents called it, alone to Australia where her Uncle deposited her at a private boarding school, at four-years of age. She became closer to her bachelor Uncle Valentine than her parents, who were distant, not just physically, but emotionally and who died before any change in their relationship might manifest.

Lena played the piano, but her first true love was the cello, one of her few regrets, that in taking up the theremin, the instrument she would become most well-known for, she stopped playing the cello.

After an unsuccessful visit to her father in Malacca (Malaysia) at 18, one where he had hoped to groom her into the demure, music playing, after dinner entertainment for his friends, a night walk into the seedier parts of the town, where she stumbles across her Uncle and her father’s business partner in an opium den, has her sent back to Australia, willingly and to the beginning of a life she will create anew.

“It had taken little for me to disappoint my father, but in truth, he too had disappointed me. Father, home, family; empty words, without meaning for me.”

She is introduced to and practices cello with Madame Vita Petrova, the eccentric, vodka and coffee drinking Russian with a unique ear and skill for the cello, not found in the more conservative establishments. It is her first encounter with the artistic and musical misfits, a bohemian community with whom she is more comfortable and will become part of.

It is through Madame Petrova she hears of the Professor, the man who introduces her to the instrument, the Music’s Most Modern Instrument, she will play for the world, the theremin.

“played by the waving of hands, like conducting an orchestra. It is played without the player touching it, not with a bow, nor by blowing. It is neither wind nor string, brass nor percussion.”

The Bridge, Dorrit Black (1930)

The Bridge, Dorrit Black (1930)

In Sydney, she meets Beatrix Carmichael, a painter/artist twice her age who becomes her constant companion, a part of who she is, one who really sees her. As Beatrix paints the two sides of the Sydney Harbour Bridge coming together on her canvases, from the verandah of their home, it feels so real, and yet there is a sense of the end of an era, as the subject becomes less intriguing on completion.

“We celebrated it, this joining of the city, the coming together, and yet Trix mourned it too. Since her return from Europe, since her arrival in Sydney, she’d been painting the growing bridge in parts, separate; in fragmented shapes formed of light and colour and sun and music.”

The novel follows Lena’s long, engaging life, and each turn of events that takes her away from the familiar until finally she returns to the place that most feels like home, where she plays one last performance and will meet the young filmmaker Mo, who provokes her into completing the life story she began to record many years before.

As the filmmaker questions Lena Gaunt about her life before the performance she had just given (in her eighties), the narrative flashes back to her past, her isolated childhood, boarding school, separation from family, visits by Uncle Valentine, the piano, the cello, musical influences, her life with Beatrix, making her remember it all, even the painful memories she had hoped never to re-encounter.

It is a fascinating story, a mix of fact and fiction, one that Tracy Farr succeeds in bringing alive through the places Lena visits and lives in, the people we encounter, the music that is made, the images that are painted and the heartbreaking losses she must sustain.