My first encounter with this book happened to be on twitter in August 2016 after someone mentioned it in passing. For a moment I mused on what an odd title it has,but without thinking twice I moved along. After all, what is a millennial without digital haste?
The second time was at my usual book stand along Moi Avenue, where my book guy, Peter, gave me quite the marketing performance on the book.
At this point I bit, I bought it.
The book is a memoir of a grown up Lucy Grealy, who at only 9 years old was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a potentially terminal form of Cancer. As a result of this illness, a third of Lucy’s jaw was removed so as to manage the disease, and subsequently Lucy went through 2 and a half years of devastating (and told in painstaking detail) bouts of chemotherapy.
While the chemo is an enormous source of pain for Lucy though, the book is Lucy taking the reader on an aesthetic journey of her face. Throughout her life, Lucy went through upwards of 30 surgeries to “rectify” her face, but every time her body swallowed itself in, consuming all grafts and treatments to revert to its most disfigured form. Lucy goes through particularly demeaning mockery in school on account of this disfigurement, and even in adulthood, she narrates gruelling experiences of being utterly humiliated and called ugly, her internal struggles with prospects of finding love despite her physical appearance and her journey through finding solace in poetry and solitude. Often, Lucy had to imagine parallel realities where life could be much worse, so as to feel better, which for the reader is more than heartbreaking, it’s immobilising. With Lucy we travel from Ireland to New York to Berlin to London to Scotland, looking to belong, looking for a semblance of normalcy in its most vane and literal sense.
I have read books about Cancer, but this is not about Cancer. The Cancer is only the means to the lense through which Lucy comes face to face with the concepts of beauty, of belonging, of acceptance, of love and how all these wonderful, complex and profound things can be inexplicably linked to how we quantify our sense of worth, and how others assess our potential to be worthy of these things.
Autobiography of a Face is incredibly well written, and on the first pages I found myself giggling quite a lot despite the heaviness of the subject matter. It is told with a great sense of wit, and sentimentality when it calls for it. It’s raw and honest, and therefore beautiful. This aptly titled book is an exquisite mirror into the innocence of children, a source of important questions and at the end simply a hauntingly beautiful memoir.