Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer - review by Francesca Peacock

Francesca Peacock

Dying Words

Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies


Picador £14.99 438pp

If cancer could speak, what would it say? In Maddie Mortimer’s Booker-longlisted first novel, Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies, we no longer have to imagine: Lia is dying of breast cancer and her ailment narrates parts of her story. The cancer – which alternates between referring to itself as ‘I’ and ‘we’ as it takes root in, and eventually takes over, Lia’s body – describes the chemotherapy sessions and the ministrations of each of Lia’s family.

From the cancer’s perspective, Lia’s daughter Iris is ‘Yellow’ – so called for her jaundice as a baby and her favourite colour. Lia’s husband, Harry, is ‘The Gardener’; her best friend, Connie, is ‘Velvet’; her mother, Anne, is ‘Dove’. The cancer knows Lia’s family and her memories, but translates them into its own language. It describes the sadness, love and other emotions of these characters, all the while maintaining its own jaunty tone: ‘Today I might … tap at her trachea like the bones of a xylophone.’

Lia does not have the privilege of such jauntiness: she had cancer once before and, just as Iris begins secondary school – ‘confident as ever in her new school uniform’ – a doctor informs her that her cancer has returned. What follows is a sequence of hospital visits (for

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