‘When all this is over, are you going to write about it?’ This was the question posed to Margaret Forster by her sister-in-law, a few weeks before she died from cancer. Forster’s first response was to say no, and she reminded Marion that her books usually began with thinking through a problem. ‘Isn’t dying a problem?’ was the tart reply. Some time later, Forster did write most movingly about Marion’s final months in a memoir, Precious Lives, in which she debated with great lucidity and sensitivity such difficult issues as euthanasia, assisted suicide, and how best to care for the terminally ill.
In Forster’s new novel, Is There Anything You Want?, she turns again to the challenges cancer poses for both sufferer and carer. This time, however, she highlights a dilemma which is generally either ignored, or treated with determined optimism: how it feels to survive breast cancer. The story begins with a description of patients and staff at a clinic at St Mary’s, a busy NHS hospital in a small northern town, and then moves out to consider their relationships within the wider community of family and neighbours.
There is no common factor that links the cancer sufferers, except the fear and anxiety engendered by their condition. Edwina has been in remission for almost ten years, and will soon be signed off by the clinic. This news fills her with panic. If she isn’t regularly checked, how will she know if the disease begins again? At home, unable to share her fears with her husband, she takes refuge in books, losing herself in biographies of other women’s lives. Lately, however, she’s been reading about the life and suicide of Primo Levi, and recognises herself as similarly the survivor of a catastrophe which can barely be communicated. Ida’s response to cancer is rather different from Edwina’s. A woman who long ago ceased to take care of her body, allowing it to become grossly fat and ungainly, she talks relentlessly about her illness, defiantly showing off her scar at a meeting of the Women’s Fellowship. Inside, however, she is as terrified as Edwina, running off to the vicarage for consolation when the panic attacks become impossible to bear. At the same time, sensing that her husband is repulsed by her damaged breast, she keeps him at a distance. Another patient – Rachel, a professional woman and something of a loner – keeps quiet about her disease. She finds release when she takes up gliding, feeling her body mysteriously cleansed by the stimulating elixir of excitement and danger.
These three women, whose stories are powerfully outlined by Forster, are not the only survivors of life’s cruelties. Chrissie, a doctor working in the clinic, suffers from an over-developed sense of responsibility, and is driven to breakdown when a young patient unexpectedly commits suicide. Cecil, the new vicar at St James’s Church, is also recovering from nervous collapse, and responds with horrified dismay when Ida stumbles into the vicarage, demanding his pastoral care. The most vibrant figure in the novel, however, is Mary Hibbert, an elderly woman who is one of the volunteer Friends at the hospital, always lurking by the entrance ready to pounce on any patient who appears in need of direction, advice, or consolation. A do-gooder who frequently alienates the objects of her benevolence, an inveterate meddler in other people’s lives, Mary Hibbert is also a highly intelligent woman, who grew up in a period when her unexpected talents, for gardening and for passion, were cruelly nipped in the bud.
Forster’s interest in the lives of the obscure, the ordinary men and women whose quiet, often painful destinies never make the headlines, has generated a stream of remarkable books. Novels like her recent Diary of an Ordinary Woman and her family memoirs, Hidden Lives and Precious Lives, have uncovered stories whose fascination lies in the courage and resourcefulness with which even the most humble people handle adversity. Forster’s empathy and lack of sentimentality, as well as her quick ear and eye for the telling detail, command attention, while her skills as a storyteller ensure the reader’s avid curiosity about what happens next. If Is There Anything You Want? is less engaging, it may simply be because the novel, like its protagonists, is preoccupied with the transitional stage between a difficult past and an uncertain future. How these stories will end is not the point. What is important is how people feel as their histories unfold. What they want is someone to hear their sufferings and to bear witness to the painful experiences they long to share. For Mary Hibbert, Edwina and Ida, explaining their feelings is almost as impossible as finding the perfect, attentive listener. All they can do is endure, while those around them judge and misinterpret their behaviour.
This is a bleak and unsparing novel. The dilapidated, soon-to-be-rebuilt hospital with its makeshift cubicles and down-at-heel chapel, and the rector’s icy house, where the sofas reek of cats’ pee, enhance the atmosphere of stress and discomfort. Only the natural landscape, the backdrop to Rachel’s escape to the thermals and Cecil’s guilty retreat from his terrifying parishioners, offers any prospect of solace and repose. But most of these sufferers do not look to nature for consolation. It is human love and understanding they simultaneously crave and shun. Forster prefaces her novel with Raymond Carver’s beautiful ‘Late Fragment’, in which the speaker, asked if he got what he wanted from life, declares that he was able ‘To call myself beloved, to feel myself / beloved on the earth.’ Marion, in Precious Lives, tenderly cared for by her sister-in-law, partner, family and friends, may also have felt this priceless bounty of love. For others, it may be just too