‘Body Kintsugi’ by Senka Marić (Review)

This year saw an interesting development in the UK literary world with the passing of the torch over at Peirene Press.  Founder Meike Ziervogel has handed the reins over to Stella Sabin and James Tookey, who have shifted the company’s physical location over to Bristol, and I was interested in seeing what changes, if any, that would mean to what they publish.  While I didn’t get around to trying the first couple of books from this year’s series, I was recently offered a copy of the latest release, and having managed to eventually find time for it, I can assure you of one thing.  This is a typical Peirene book, in more ways than one…

Bosnian writer Senka Marić’s Body Kintsugi (translated by Celia Hawkesworth) starts with a woman in her early forties, newly separated from her husband, making an alarming discovery:

When you turn from your right to your left side, to keep your shoulder still, you take firm hold of your right armpit with your left hand.  Part of your hand is then on your right breast.  As your body turns to the left, slowly onto your back then towards your left hip, your hand slips back.  The fingers press into your flesh, passing over your right breast.  And then you feel it.  There, on the side, on the edge of your breast, almost outside it.  like a pebble that’s lodged itself in the top of your bathing suit.
pp.12/3 (Peirene Press, 2022)

Once the discovery is made, there no procrastinating here.  The woman immediately seeks advice, and everything is swiftly dealt with.  She has an operation and starts receiving rehab, hoping to move on with her life as soon as possible.

Alas, her smooth recovery proves to be a false dawn.  Follow-up visits and scans reveal more tumours, and the woman realises she’s in for a long, arduous journey, one with an uncertain destination.  Nevertheless, she’s determined not to even consider the unthinkable, driving forward with an iron will to stop the cancer in its tracks – and we’ll be there every step of the way.

I’m not going to lie – at times Body Kinstugi makes for pretty grim reading, and I think there should be a trigger warning for all you hypochondriacs out there.  When it comes to anxiety, at least, reading this book could seriously damage your health.  Certainly, there were occasions where I can’t say I was actually enjoying what I was reading, but it’s excellently done, a meticulous description of one woman’s journey through medical hell.

Body Kintsugi is an autobiographical work, but with a twist, written in the second-person (you).  It’s a text that is perhaps addressed to a past self, and this choice of approach has the effect of distancing the reader, making the work more objective, clinical even.  The occasional step away from the main story, such as pages containing lab reports or descriptions of cancer medication, only enhances this sensation.

In many ways, the novel is a crash course for the lay reader in what it means to be diagnosed with, and to battle, cancer.  It’s one thing to hear words like ‘tumour’ and ‘chemotherapy’ in passing, but quite another to experience them.  We’re ‘treated’ to blow-by-blow descriptions of the processes, the agony of extreme nausea and all the side effects.  The many procedures follow one after another, each step forward bringing another obstacle to be overcome and another excruciating, often embarrassing, set of physical issues to deal with.  It’s a constant, wearying battle with no end in sight.

At the heart of this conflict are the woman and her body, one she’s (understandably) quite attached to, but her condition means she must adapt to some major changes.  We’re not just talking a minor scar here or there – there are some major challenges ahead.  Early on, she must consider how much (or many) of her breasts to sacrifice, as well as considering how to approach the inevitable hair loss after chemotherapy, and (unfortunately) that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Interestingly, though, Body Kintsugi isn’t all about the battle with cancer.  The story is told in a multitude of short texts, several of which take us back to the protagonist’s childhood.  However, anyone hoping for some light relief here will be disappointed as this side of the story is just as bleak.  These sections see the protagonist (and the omnipresent narrator) looking back to a fairly miserable period, remembering how the woman’s father has his own struggles with serious illness.  In addition, other scenes reflect on their rather tense relationship.

Perhaps what this look back in time shows us is how prepared the woman is for the battle ahead, someone ready to take up the challenge head-on, and unwilling to entertain thoughts of defeat.  For one thing, she has her children, reason enough to keep on fighting:

It’s evening.  Another day is behind you.  Metal, grey, swollen with unspoken words.  You’re all eating pizza.  You and the children.  You’re drinking wine.  You laugh.  You think how beautiful they are.  How beautiful they are!  You don’t think about whether you’ll be able to watch them grow up.  The thought is forbidden.  Unnecessary.  Damaging.  Your thoughts and words are submitted to controls.  Good and acceptable.  And the others.  The others are immediately censored.  You put them into quarantine, where they will be erased. (p.99)

Yet as the days of illness, and the hospital visits, pile up, it’s inevitable that her confidence is dented somewhat.  As she sees others fall by the wayside, and with no light at the end of the tunnel, it’s only natural that there are doubts as to whether she’ll ever get to enjoy her life again.

If I said I enjoyed Body Kintsugi, I’d be embroidering the truth somewhat, but rest assured that Marić’s novel is an accomplished work, the story of a woman forced to put her life on hold because of cancer and think about what it is that makes her who she is, and makes her a woman.  Every operation and intervention takes her further away from her previous existence, yet she’s determined to hold on and come out of the other side of her ordeal stronger, ready to live, and love, again…

…told you it was a typical Peirene book 😉

2 thoughts on “‘Body Kintsugi’ by Senka Marić (Review)

  1. I haven’t read this book yet but I’m glad to see it joining the (still rather limited ranks) of books being translated from Croatian and other “Balkan” languages and that are about universal topics and not solely about the Balkan wars.


    1. Passage à l’Est! – I think there a few around now (I know Istros Books focuses on the region). I think I’d rather read about the wars than this in many ways, though – not light reading by any means…


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