LIFE SCIENCES by Joy Sorman (Translated by Lara Vergnaud)

Life Sciences
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.


DEFYING DOOMSDAY, Edited by Tsana Dolichva & Holly Kench

Freshly posted yesterday, my latest review for Skiffy & Fanty

defyingdoomsday

 

“People with disability already live in a post-apocalyptic world.” – Robert Hoge

This crowd-funded anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction showcases the theme of disabled or chronically-ill protagonists. Edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, the collection features many Aussie female writers (though not exclusively) and names likely both familiar and new to speculative fiction readers. With all of its diversity in characters, apocalyptic setting, and featured disability/illness, Defying Doomday is remarkably consistent in tone and quality

Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Contents:

And the Rest of Us Wait by Corinne Duyvis
To Take Into the Air My Quiet Breath by Stephanie Gunn
Something in the Rain by Seanan McGuire
Did We Break the End of the World? by Tansy Rayner Roberts
In the Sky with Diamonds by Elinor Caiman Sands
Two Somebodies Go Hunting by Rivqa Rafael
Given Sufficient Desperation by Bogi Takács
Selected Afterimages of the Fading by John Chu
Five Thousand Squares by Maree Kimberley
Portobello Blind by Octavia Cade
Tea Party by Lauren E Mitchell
Giant by Thoraiya Dyer
Spider-Silk, Strong as Steel by Samantha Rich
No Shit by K Evangelista
I Will Remember You by Janet Edwards

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher tin exchange for an honest review.

THE NAKEDS, by Lisa Glatt

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The Nakeds
By Lisa Glatt
Regan Arts – 2nd June 2015
ISBN 9781941393055 – 288 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


Overwhelmed for a moment by the protracted implosion of her parent’s marriage, young Hannah Teller decides to avoid their bickering and walk to school herself. Conscientiously avoiding intruding on her neighbors lawn, Hannah veers her path into the street only to be violently met by the fender of drunk driver’s car. Martin, the distracted young man behind the wheel drives away from the scene in a panic, leaving Hannah’s twisted, injured body behind.
Ripples of effect spread through the 1970s lives of those caught in this brutal chance encounter. Hannah faces an adolescence with a fragmented body, a wrecked leg encased in a toe-to-groin cast that will remain on her for the next decade of treatment. Her parents, Nina and Asher, use the turmoil of the tragedy to abandon all façades in their marriage: the Jewish Asher moves in with the Christian mistress he has been seeing and Nina abandons herself into a fling with Hannah’s doctor. Meanwhile, Martin finds himself debilitated with self-destructive remorse as his drinking becomes exclusively solitary and secretive. He begins to lurk around the hospital, guiltily monitoring Hannah’s initial convalescence and bringing her anonymous gifts, but remains incapable of stepping forward and accepting responsibility.
As Hannah learns to live with frustration of her disability and mature into her teenage years, her father grows increasingly distant with his new family and religion, and her mother finds a new husband, Azeem. Azeem is a student of psychology and sexuality who is eager to introduce his new wife to nudism and other elements of the American sexual revolution.
Glatt manages to effectively navigate the changing perspectives of these characters, uniting them all with a delicate tone that conveys dysfunction and a raw vulnerability, yet maintains ample lightheartedness. With all its darkness of betrayal, alcoholism, and general selfishness the novel is suffused with humor. There is a constant sense of hope, and moments of love shine through even amid the human missteps.
The title refers to Azeem’s repeated mistake of confusing the English word ‘nudists’ with ‘nakeds’. Nude and naked may be synonyms, but the words are each shaded with unique undertones, degrees of vulnerability. And this is ultimately what Glatt’s novel comes down to in its exploration of the characters: a conflict between proudly exposing or recognizing things honestly for what they are, good or bad, and cloaking vulnerabilities behind layers of deception, avoidance, or denial. In many cases the characters voice a commitment to complete openness, being naked both physically and emotionally before the others who they love. But their actions end up showing the lies behind the words, the aspirations. Yet one gets the sense that these characters are not maliciously lying to the people in their lives. Rather, first and foremost, they are lying to, hiding from, themselves.
Hannah is the sole exception to this behavior, and for that reason she comes across as the most fascinating perspective, the most endearing character. Trapped in the confinement of her cast, Hannah cannot ever be physically naked, even if she so desired. Yet, she is the one most capable of facing her raw emotions, the naked truth of her predicament in life. She has a bright and investigative mind, but most powerful of all she has exceptional self-realization and self-acceptance. She realizes the limits that her disability place both on herself and her friends when they go to hang out like normal teenagers. But she doesn’t dwell on this; she pursues a normal life and demonstrates immense capability in matters physical and emotional. Unlike her parents, she is able to cope with the turmoils of their families without falling to some cliché of ‘blaming’ herself’, or subverting relationship with them to find solace elsewhere.
The Nakeds is indeed an “absorbing” (as described in its blurb) story because of its fascinating characters and the balance of its tone. Glatt’s use of changing perspectives falters some in the latter half of the novel as development turns primarily towards Hannah-Nina-Azeem while Asher in particular is mostly dropped. Nonetheless it is an effective novel that would fit well as an engaging summer read or as a conversation-stimulating book-club selection. For those interested, The Nakeds was also featured in a recent episode of Book Riots’ new All the Books! podcast, and is worth a listen.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE FIFTH VERTEX, by Kevin Hoffmann

23000230The Fifth Vertex
The Sigilord Chronicles Book 1

By Kevin Hoffman
Self Published – 2nd August 2014
ISBN 0990647919 – 290 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Picking up a book with no established publishing provenance, large or small press, is always a bit risky in terms of time, a lot like going through a slush pile, or scraping the sidewalks of New York City’s jewelry district for gold shavings.  James Patrick Kelly has a great On the Net feature about this topic for this month’s Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Kelly writes about the need for some sort of better curation of ‘indie’ authors; that is definitely the case, but I too am unsure how this can be pulled off until a group of already-respected indie authors organize some type of recommendation system. Until then, it is an unfortunate matter of chance, of some undefinable element attracting a reviewer’s eye to fit it into reading schedules.
I don’t recall why I requested this on NetGalley, but it was probably the combination of seeming like a plot I may enjoy and the novel already having some reviews that indicated aspects, such as the protagonists here, that seemed noteworthy to give it a shot. Whatever the reasons, I’m glad I had the chance to read this fantasy novel, which bills itself as young adult mostly to my eyes because of the protagonist’s age. Based on this first book of a planned series, I think that The Sigilord Chronicles could go into some really interesting directions and will be looking for the followup to come.
The plot of The Fifth Vertex is a standard one, familiar to any fantasy reader and perhaps even one you might be tired of: the coming of age tale of a likable, socially outcast young man who ends up on a quest and discovers powers of which he previously was unaware. But, while Hoffman doesn’t particularly cover any new ground in this regard, he does make this archetypical tale really entertaining. Through the development of an interesting society and well-formed protagonists, Hoffman makes the story compelling.
The first protagonist is Urus, and though he comes from a well-to-do stratus of his society, his place (role) in that society is not determined as much through birth as much as through testing his worth as a warrior. For it is a warrior that the society most respects, and what Urus is expected to be as his family before him. Urus defines himself according to this limited narrative and perspective, but at heart he is more of a gentle soul, and while full of brains, has no brawn. The novel starts with his failure in his ‘testing’ and his subsequent attempt at suicide at having failed to live up to those expectations of society. The simple theme present here is easily recognizable and relevant to the world of reality, particularly for a young adult, so the story would have appeal for those readers. In addition to not meeting the expectations of being a warrior, Urus additionally must adapt to living in his society as a deaf person.
Characters with physical disability aren’t exactly common, and when present they usually serve as unfortunate caricatures or vehicles for showing how certain perceived limitations can actually have strengths of their own. Sadly they are never just included as a ‘regular’ person without the detail of disability ‘called out’ in a way integral to the plot. Here is no exception, but at least Urus is not objectified or mishandled here, falling more into that category where limitations perceived by the abled turn out to be vital for saving society and everyone’s life. For Urus this is not just the perceived weakness of his deafness, but also the perceived weakness of his physical strength and stomach for violence. Hoffman handles the deafness aspect in terms of the narrative with respect and it is interesting to read the explanations of the signage made between Urus and his companions.
The other point of view protagonist, a young orphan girl named Cailix, is another interesting character who starts as a servant at a monastery but is soon forced to ‘grow up’ too quickly when forcibly taken captive by a group of blood mages intent on gaining secret knowledge. As this plot intersects with Urus’, the reader begins to appreciate Cailix’s development from scared, somewhat sheltered child, to stronger, more wise young lady (in a manner similar to Sansa Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire, actually). There is a certain darkness and pessimism to Cailix that is a perfect complement to Urus, made literal in the way their ‘magical’ talents end up complementing.
Though fantasy, Hoffman makes some effort to explain the magical elements in The Fifth Vertex, from a rudimentary scientific perspective, making this a blend of speculative genres in some ways. Overall this is a really impressive book that will appeal to many SFF fans, and there is a diversity to the characters (including race that as others have noted is sadly not reflected in the cover illustration). Though taking the ‘self published’ (or ‘indie author’) route, The Fifth Vertex was really indistinguishable to me from something I’d expect from a genre paperback publisher.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the author via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.