Body Kintsugi

Books can be challenging for any number of reasons: an unlikeable narrator, a complex structure, an idiosyncratic style; in the case of Senka Maric’s Body Kintsugi, newly translated by Celia Hawkesworth, the challenge lies in the subject matter itself. The novel tells the story of a woman’s relationship with her body as she discovers, and then undergoes treatment for, breast cancer. While the novel is not without hope, it is also a gruelling experience for both narrator and reader – a pairing intensified by the use of the second person – with its focus as much on the physical as the psychological effects of illness.

One aspect of the novel’s bleakness is the narrator’s isolation. The novel opens with her husband packing a bag and leaving, and this affects her state of mind in advance of her cancer diagnosis as she realises “he hadn’t left behind him a sense of emptiness, only a sense of defeat.” A month later she finds she has a pain in her shoulder – a build-up of calcium, and a reminder of how little control we have of our bodies:

“The doctor said all you could do would take painkillers and wait for it to pass.”

As that pain begins to pass, however, she discovers a lump in her breast:

“Like a pebble that’s lodged itself the top of your bathing suit.”

This series of events, told in the first few pages, creates a feeling of “how unlucky you are, how for years bad things have been piling up, one after another,” which is compounded by sense that the lump she has discovered is an inevitability linked to her mother’s breast cancer sixteen years before. The “good news,” according to the doctor, is that her diagnosis is early:

“His words were an anchor that made it possible for reality not to dissolve.”

This reaction is an example of Maric’s ability cut to the heart of the narrator’s feelings. The novel is told in short chapters, focusing on such key moments. The diagnosis is followed quickly by the first operation, where Maric makes her intentions clear:

“This is a story about the body. Its struggle to feel while reality shatters it into fragments.”

The novel’s title expresses an optimism the narrator does not often feel in its reference to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken pottery is repaired in such a way as to draw attention to the cracks. Maric certainly draws attention to the cracks (“The gash goes from the right nipple towards your back…”) but readers should not expect a celebration of the scars. When another tumour is found, and the second breast must be removed, she longs to keep something of herself despite her doctor’s disapproval:

“Protheses? Why are you talking about aesthetics to me here? I’m talking to you about your life!”

The narrator does not let her body go lightly, attempting to keep the shape of her breasts even as she cannot keep them. In writing about the aftermath of the operation, Maric captures the pain the narrator experiences:

“The pain will be relentless for the following week… You’ll try to trick it. Find a movement it will be late for. As you straighten up your almost hear the stirring of the silicone protheses inside you, a jagged sound that makes you flesh sob.”

Pain becomes a living part of her body, and in the final phrase, Maric mixes the senses to emphasise how it invades every part of her.

Alongside the story of her treatment for cancer, Maric also includes moments from the narrator’s childhood. These, too, often focus on her developing body. As a child she finds some pornographic pictures and feels her body betraying her – a memory she returns to “to enjoy the warmth in your body and hate yourself because of it.” At thirteen:

“You’re having a hard time with your body that longs to be touched.”

These chapters widen the novels scope – rather than being only a story of illness, the novel becomes an exploration of our relationship with the body, and, more specifically, its separation from the mind. It reminds us of our mortality not in a reflective, abstract way, but in drawing attention to the vessel of that mortality. In this sense it can be a brutal, bruising experience for the reader, but also perhaps a necessary correction to our tendency to forget the flesh we live in.


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3 Responses to “Body Kintsugi”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    This does sound like a very painful read, Grant – Peirene books rarely pull their punches. I’m not sure I would be quite up to this one…

  2. International Booker Prize Predictions 2023 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] also have a contender in Of Saints and Miracles by Manuel Astur (translated by Claire Wadie) – Body Kintsugi is too grim; History. A Mess a little too […]

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