Review of Nicola Griffith’s ‘So Lucky’
The New York Times describes Nicola Griffith’s new novel So Lucky as a ‘compact, brutal story of losing power and creating community’. A genre-blurring, ground-shifting book, So Lucky centres on Mara Tagarelli, who’s just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Griffith, a British-American writer who has MS, is known for her acclaimed novel Hild and the Aud Torvingen crime series.
The opening lines throw us right in:
It came for me in November, that loveliest of months in Atlanta: blue sky stinging with lemon sun, the squirrels screaming at each other over the pecans because they weren’t fooled; they knew winter was coming.
As Mara waves goodbye to her 14-year relationship, she loses her footing on an autumn leaf. Later, when she reaches for a bottle of milk, her hand doesn’t work.
Trained as a martial artist, Mara has fought to become confident in her body and her world. After surviving a violent assault at the age of 22, she turned her rage into strength:
[and] … learned to fight, to smash wood with my hands, to stretch my body, to toughen it, make it harder, stronger. Learned not to be afraid: to break their narrative.
But how to deal with MS, this ‘it’, this ‘thief’, this ‘grinning thing’ that’s come to stay?
The most powerful passages spotlight the reactions of others, the casual and institutionalised able-ism. Suddenly the line between Us and Them has moved. ‘Sufferer. Victim. Was that who I was now?’
Mara’s day job involves running a budget-stretched non-government HIV/AIDS organisation. At first she doesn’t tell anyone about her diagnosis, but there’s the profound exhaustion, the limp, the walking cane, the overwhelming effects of summer heat. On top of that, she has to convince her colleagues their office needs a ramp:
… the pavement wavered in the heat and my cane seemed to sink into the blacktop. A man I passed at the door pretended not to see me struggle. The woman behind the reception desk smiled in a bright Southern way … before the cane she’d greeted me by name.
For anyone whose health has changed suddenly, Griffith deftly captures the disorientation of dealing with new practicalities, the confronting recalibration of identity, the denial, fear, anger, and the seemingly random wins and losses with the medical world. Mara eventually takes the advice to ‘find her people’ and attends an MS support group, which spins into the surreal.
She flies across the US to an annual conference, but this time she needs a wheelchair. While the airport attendants reluctantly organise one, they speak about her – not to her – as if she’s a piece of baggage. Things don’t improve at the conference. There’s none of the usual banter or flirting with the other delegates. Even here, she’s become invisible. The wheelchair has written her ‘out of the story’.
But Mara is having none of that. The next time she travels, she’s adapted her survival strategies:
This time I expected to be ignored, so it hurt less. And this time I saw all those people like me on the periphery: people in chairs, people with dogs, people with interpreters. But I was too tired to manage anything but the conference minimum …
Forced to take leave and subsist on her limited health insurance, she draws on her IT skills, contacts, and new knowledge to establish an online community and a much-needed support service. This is where the novel morphs into a harrowing psychological thriller. Mara’s enterprise is hijacked. People’s lives are put at risk as paranoia, vulnerability, and danger collide.
But So Lucky is also punctuated with flashes of subversive wit and fierce hope. Mara has a nifty way of dealing with able-bodied drivers who hog disabled-reserved car spaces, and there’s a blossoming bond with her shambolic dope-growing neighbour, Josh. As for the avalanche of slick MS drug pamphlets, she detects the familiar whiff of a promise and threat, heaven and hell, showcased in these slick, sanitised parallel realities:
Glossy sales brochures full of pictures of clean-cut, unstressed, middle-class people with white teeth posed with clean and shiny mobility aids, or standing on top of a mountain, or riding a bike … They reminded me of tampon adverts … buy this and magically be able to ride a white horse bareback through a field …
Griffith has said So Lucky is her ‘version of just writing a story I want to write … a way to sort of overwrite the ableist narrative … just give people a different story to replace the old story’. Apparently she didn’t plan to write this book. Suddenly it ‘came roaring out’.
Some readers may find So Lucky an unsettling book. For others its honesty, power, and capacity to destabilise certain assumptions are a welcome recognition and an urgent articulation of familiar realities.
Nicola Griffith: So Lucky published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2018 PB 192pp $21.99
Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Griffith Review, Spineless Wonders, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, and 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA Prize.
This review was first published on Sydney’s Newtown Review of Books.