By Joy Sorman
(Translated by Lara Vergnaud)
Restless Books — October 2021
ISBN: 9781632062956 — Paperback — 272 pp.
On the surface level, Life Sciences is about an individual’s response to inexplicable chronic disease within a modern society that can provide no relief or healing. Seventeen-year-old Ninon Moise wakes one day to discover the skin of her arms burning in pain at the slightest touch. Her doctors are at a loss for how this has come about, they wonder if perhaps she is just even making it up. Or perhaps there is no physical cause to it, but an issue of psychology, a trick of the mind and self perceptions of pain?
The onset and unique specificity of symptoms doesn’t surprise her, she’s expected their arrival, only uncertain in the precise form they’d manifest. Her mother Esther was similarly struck with achromatopsia at a young age, an inability to see colors any longer, with no discernable cause or deficiency behind its revelation. Back through the family line, to the earliest recordings in the Middle Ages, women in their family have been stricken with seemingly random disease. A curse. Or a perverse female birthright claimed.
It’s therefore time for her daughter to stand out, and it’s as though that distinctiveness can only be revealed through her genes, as though uniqueness can only be expressed by a cell line, as though the force of a person’s existence is reabsorbed whole by the transmission of genetic characteristics hoped to be rare and mysterious, as though that force can’t be incarnated, for example, by an act…
Ninon’s physical discomfort, and the complications the condition manifests for her daily activities – like high school – quickly turn her mind from seeing the disease naively as a rite of passage, membership and individuality attained within her family. She rebels against acceptance and accommodation, seeking answers from medicine, and treatment, starting with basic identification of what afflicts her, for “… a sickness without a name isn’t a disease, it’s just shapeless suffering.” The awful chasm of fearful uncertainty becomes alleviated when professionals diagnose her condition: dynamic tactile allodynia.
…what a marvelous, beautiful trio of words! wonderfully pompous and complicated, three words when just one would have sufficed, three words that roll off the tongue, and with the diagnosis pronounced, Ninon could almost dance for joy, she’s finally been deemed sick and therefore innocent, absolved of all suspicion, what a relief to know you have something rather than nothing.
The joy from that first step of answers rapidly vanishes as she realizes the doctors have no clue what to do about this monster they have given a name. They throw any treatment they can think of towards her body. And when that fails, her mind. With modern medicine failing at every turn, she turns to traditional, folk practices. But still the pain in her arms continue with the barest brush of touch. Is it perhaps lessening with time? Or is that just her becoming habituated to the pain?
Sorman’s novel thereby works at this basic level as a fascinating study of an individual human body falling prey to biology that we still do not precisely understand. For as far as we may have come from hundreds of years ago, our science sometimes still fails to provide answers or healing, giving less than even religions or faith may have given to Ninon’s female ancestors through the earlier ages.
Sorman’s language, beautifully translated in flowing prose by Lara Vergnaud, spectacularly conveys the feelings of pain and helplessness, of despair that can happen amid inexplicable disease or disorder. It’s something relatable for any feeling human who has felt desperation for finding answers to one’s health, even if one doesn’t have to live with a chronic condition.
At the metaphorical level, the novel becomes something even more, symbolizing the cultural and societal treatment of women through the ages in the form of these inherited diseases. The women through the ages in her family suffer, and they are asked to just simply bare it. There is no fixing it. There is no reason why. It simply is.
…Ninon thinks that she’d have liked to be a boy but doesn’t mention it, not wanting to upset her mother. And ultimately it’s on that day, when she learns that the men of the family were touched by disgrace too, that she realizes the scope of the curse, that of being born a girl: hormonal chance, genetic injustice.
The disease biology and feminist readings of the novel are not mutually exclusive either, as medicine still routinely ignores issues of female health, of female-specific biology over the male standard. This is evident from issues of reproductive rights, to remaining uncertainties of the hormonal complexities during female development (youth to beyond menopause) and their varied effects on the female body, something society has wanted to simplify and control, not really understand or let flourish. A scene later in the novel where Ninon goes to see a more holistic healer reiterates this traditional view of women being equivalent to a body, to skin:
I am a body above all else, solemnly repeats Dr. Kilfe, I am a body above all else, and nothing pleases ninon more than this affirmation, I am skin above all else, adds the psychiatrist, I am made of all the sensations that emerge on the surface of the body, the surface of the consciousness is homothetic to that of the body, they have the same surface area, the same reach, the mind isn’t buried in the folds and twists of the brain, it appears on the surface, sensitive to wind and sun, to caresses and blows.
Life Sciences is a powerful and artistic novel, pulsing with the life of language, not just human biology and feminism. The first half of the book, and its close are phenomenal, but my one critique would be that most of the second half starts to feel repetitive and needless. Nonetheless, it is a quick, satisfying read and doesn’t feel insurmountably bloated at all.
For those who enjoy the themes of this novel and want something similar – or in a shorter dose, I’d recommend Sarah Tolmie’s short stories in her collection Disease. Tolmie goes more toward the side of absurd comedy, but the general themes are very comparable to those in Life Sciences.