Ok, so when I write book reviews I usually write them quite conventionally: here’s what the book’s about, this is what I did/didn’t like, this is why it is/isn’t clever, if you like x, y, and z you will/won’t love it, and so on. But I think I’m going to go a bit off-piste with this one because I have too many feelings, so sit down and grab a cuppa, because we are about to have a conversation — if quite a one-sided one.
But first: buy this book. Buy it now. Don’t even finish reading this review before you buy it, because then someone else might buy it before you and you might have to wait longer than you already have to get your hands on it, and that would be Very Bad Indeed.
Have you bought it? Ok, good. So, here’s why you should be excited.
“For years, I’ve considered it an established fact that the female body is a pain in the ass. The male body seems like a sunny campsite in comparison.”
Living in New York City in her thirties, Laura is a newly-single mother trying to come to terms with a body still wracked by pain, caused by the endometriosis that has left her internal organs scarred and fused together. In this book, her pain takes centre stage, and the reverse chronology from present day to childhood is a poignant and often-heartrending device.
Karen Havelin writes with empathy and sensitivity about her protagonist’s struggles with chronic illness, motherhood, sexuality, and her almost-obsessive pursuit to be entirely self-reliant, even as her body makes it impossible to be. What startled me, as someone who lives with chronic pain — albeit not due to endometriosis — was the stark way in which this reality is brought to life on the page
This isn’t pain as a metaphor. This is not a book that finds pain poetic, or the gateway to some great truth that pain-free people want to believe it is. It is an honest depiction of what it truly means to live in pain, and that sometimes, despite our best efforts, pain and illness simply are.
I found myself folding down pages (yes, I dog-ear the books I love — sorry!) almost constantly, underlining passages that rang with accuracy, even as I mentally congratulated Karen for breaking with a literary convention, that often sees pain-free writers equate suffering with growth.
“Perhaps I would have a better life if I could manufacture some meaning from it all. Through illness, you mostly just get screwed. You lose so much time, putting in full days of misery and there is really no end to how bad it can get. Time spent suffering didn’t teach me anything I wanted to learn. But perhaps as time passes, it’s possible to learn not to blame yourself. Life is hard enough.”
I (genuinely) couldn’t have put it better myself.
As a novel, it probably sounds quite bleak at this stage, and yet, despite all of this, Please Read This Leaflet Carefully isn’t simply about suffering: it is about the life that still needs to be lived within it. It is about the wants that still drive us, even — and sometimes, especially — when our bodies start to misbehave. It’s about the ambitions we still harbour, and the whole human experience of striving for the things we want, while operating in a world that’s so far removed from the lives of the people around us.
Laura is angry. She is hopeful. She’s frustrated. She’s capable. She’s a mess. She’s a success. She’s a mother. She hasn’t got a clue what she’s doing. She understands exactly what she wants. She is joyful. She is grieving. And she wants to talk about it, even, and especially, because other people don’t want to.
“It’s crystal clear to me that no one wants to hear about it,” she thinks. “But I will never finish needing to tell how much it hurt, how much it hurts, how bad it is.”
The peculiar frustration, grief, and sometimes humour involved in moving through a world that doesn’t want to hear your pain, and of building friendships, relationships, and goals on an endlessly shifting sand of sickness, is where this book shines. And yet, there is still a universality to Laura’s experience; that of being a young woman desperate to succeed on her own merits, in a world that is determinedly not built for her.
Karen’s writing is vivid without being verbose, stark without being gratuitous, poignant without becoming clichéd, and above all, bold, with a particularly keen eye for relationships, and the missed opportunities for connection we experience every day.
What frustrates me now as I read back these words, is that in the same way that language is not yet developed enough to convey the true reality of pain, neither can I twist it into a form that does this book justice. At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story told backwards, about a woman who’s hungry to be in the world, about the fragility of the bodies we all have to live inside, about the distance between us and other people, and about how those distances can against all odds be breached.
It’s lucky for you all that Karen is a far better writer than I am, because after reading this review, you now get to be lucky enough to read Please Read This Leaflet Carefully for the first time.
I envy you your first read, even as I dive into my third. And there’s really no higher praise I can give than that, is there?
Please Read This Leaflet Carefully is published in the UK by DeadInk Books here.
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