In 2008 Craig Sherborne wrote an essay for the Monthly on the death of his first wife from breast cancer. The title was ‘Unforgiven’. In it, Sherborne tells the story of his years with Alex, whom he met in London in 1985 when he was a callow 22 year old. She came into the hostel where he was working – as a “lackey” setting out breakfast – in a “flowery blouse, green and blue”, and he fell for her on the spot. She was 31, an artist, escaping a marriage made too young. By six o’clock she’s drawn him, and by ten o’clock they’re kissing. They have great sex despite the fact she hates her breasts, which fall to the side “like two stumpy arms” when she lies on her back.
They are together for 11 years, through an abortion and then her diagnosis with an advanced and aggressive breast cancer. He is young. She is afraid. He can’t save her. She clings on. He dodges, placates, and then marries her. But marriage is no fix for a situation as toxic as this, and the time inevitably comes when he falls in love with a woman with two healthy breasts and leaves. Alex is in remission by then, and he never sees her again.
The essay was occasioned by news of her death. A mutual friend rings and Craig hears of Alex’s final, punishing fiat that neither he nor the friend should attend the funeral – or even send flowers. “True unforgiveness,” Sherborne writes, “needs no wills, no official papers. It will hate your friends as much as you.” He sends flowers anyway. Sunflowers, her favourite.
It’s an affecting essay, driven by held-in emotion, and at its heart is the notion of unforgiveness. “To be unforgiven is no great shame,” it begins. “A cramp of nausea your bowels can’t clear. Sweat itches your hairline, stains your pillow.” No great shame? The essay is taut with shame: the shame of taking the path of life; the shame of leaving someone who, little by little, becomes repugnant to you. The gasp for air. The shame of the living.
“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship,” Susan Sontag famously wrote in the opening to Illness as Metaphor, and no one dwells there willingly. Sherborne’s first novel, The Amateur Science of Love (?Text Publishing, 288pp; $32.95), which comes after two works of memoir, revisits these events in fictional form. Tilda Robson walks into the hostel – where Colin has been “promoted to cutting the lunch ham” – wearing a yellow sunflower blouse, and from there unfolds a remarkably similar story.
Detail accumulates around the wound of an abortion ambivalently undertaken, the terror of a cancer diagnosis and its attendant and, in this case, savage treatments. After the mastectomy Tilda makes Colin kiss the scar as she spirals into a rage that becomes blame and a self-pity that becomes jealousy. The fictional Colin, like the Craig of the essay, dodges, placates, and then marries her. The story is well told, the pages turn with an almost voyeuristic ease as the relationship deteriorates and Colin’s entrapment brings him to his own vortex of deceit, to punitive, albeit passive, hostility and the inevitable betrayal.
Colin is writing his account of this sorry history in the “nook” beside the bathroom in the house where he and Tilda live, in a town with “toilets of bluestone distinction” in Victoria’s Wimmera. It’s an old bank, like the one Craig and Alex have in the essay. He is writing as he prepares himself to leave the woman he’s come to loathe, for the two-breasted, well woman he’s fallen in love with. And he’s not avoiding his own culpability. “A coward of a man,” Sherborne wrote in the essay.
For Colin, still young, barely 30, shame is at once self-lacerating and self-justifying, as if the honesty of the first adds weight to the second. That’s the nasty inlaid catch of writing in the first person. It offers the appearance of transparent honesty, of sparing oneself nothing, while carrying the readers into the tumult that has brought this honest teller of the tale to a state so low. Who would not want to escape Tilda’s furies, her recriminations, her abject pleading, her missing breast, her arm swollen from lymphoedema? The first person offers a tempting bargain: if you’re sufficiently critical of yourself, you are excused in some weird way for what you say of others.
I should know, I did it for years, and you could say that in writing this sentence I’m doing it again. But this is a review, not a confession, and likewise The Amateur Science of Love is a novel, not a confession. And yet one feels the confessional undertow of the unforgiven Sherborne of the essay. Not Tilda’s unforgiveness of Colin, or even Alex’s of Craig, but Colin’s (Craig’s?) own unforgiveness of himself. They (Colin and Craig) are alive. Alex is dead. Tilda, though alive at the end of the novel, is still on the night-side of life, in Sontag’s kingdom of the sick.
Early in the novel, Tilda has an abortion. Colin helps manoeuvre her into the decision. This, for me, is one of the best sections of the novel. They are in it together, and Sherborne shows us how a man feels in this emotional terrain: the terror before, the tenderness afterwards. They are still in love, there can be a reprieve, another baby one day. The abortion, with its attendant blame and unforgiveness, can be held in some kind of balance with the redemptive possibilities of life and the future.
But then Tilda gets cancer. Is it a punishment for the abortion? Could the hormonal interruption have generated a cancer in the breast? Whether or not this could be so, the true punishment of Tilda in this novel lies in the stark fact that she is given no voice of her own. She is condemned to the projections of Colin’s unforgiveness and the silence of the soon to be dead. Sherborne shows us how a mortal illness in those close to us can evoke unforgiving feelings of anger and rejection, and it takes a certain courage to dramatise this in a culture reluctant to come to terms with death. Yet, as Susan Sontag has shown us – and anyone who’s had their own brush with cancer knows – entry into the “kingdom of the sick” casts one at the mercy not only of the cancer itself but of the metaphors in which our culture dresses the ‘killer disease’.
You don’t need to read Sontag to know that cancer comes swathed in attributes: uncontrolled and invasive, incoherent, and devouring. And there is poor Tilda, hysterical with rage, out of control, awash with these terrifying attributes, while Colin is up in his nook figuring out how to escape. If the Alex of the essay were here to read the novel, she could be forgiven for thinking she’d been reduced to the cancer.
This may be an inevitable risk in dealing artistically with a subject so charged. Controversy has dogged Annie Leibovitz’s photographs of Sontag with breast cancer, and particularly the image of her dead. By chance I saw Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life 1990–2005 at Sydney’s MCA in the same week as I read Sherborne’s novel. Included among the Sontag photographs was a set of four taken of her in the bath at Leibovitz’s New York apartment in 1992. Three show Sontag’s torso without her face; in the fourth her gaze meets the camera. In each of these four shots, she holds her absent left breast, the place of the mastectomy, with her right hand. Her left arm is curled over her stomach in a comforting gesture, as if holding her body in an embrace, and at the same time holding it together against its vulnerability. The hand over the absent breast is protective, concealing the scar from inquisitive eyes. It is also indicative: there is the wound, it says. Three shots show only the wound to body, but the fourth, which brings into view the unprotected eye, shows also the wound to the soul. There is nothing metaphoric about these photographs. An absent breast is very absent.
Nor should it be underestimated how terrifying that absent breast would be for a young man such as Colin, caught in a marriage made for all the wrong reasons. What kind of man leaves a woman with a mastectomy scar? Craig Sherborne gives us the answer, and a powerful answer it is too. What he doesn’t do – and, to be fair, didn’t set out to do – is to let us see that wound from within the bath, so to speak. The shadow side of his choice of the first person is that, by facing up to his own unforgiveness as he makes a run for life, he comes perilously close to reinforcing the metaphors in which our culture clothes an illness it dreads.
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