by Nicola Griffith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018
Within the first pages of Nicola Griffith’s seventh novel, So Lucky, it becomes clear that the events therein are anything but lucky. Mara Tagarelli is left by her wife of fourteen years, suffers a serious fall which leads to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, and is fired from her job. MS leads not only to the loss of physical integrity – whether in the form of numbness, weakness, pain, loss of balance, or blindness – but also, potentially, the loss of mental integrity. There is no cure, and little treatment. And this is only the beginning of Mara’s troubles.
Of the fall, Griffith writes:
[I] went into the kitchen to make cocoa. I didn’t turn on the lights. The white tile was shadowy under my bare feet, and hard against the calluses formed by kicking boards and punchbags. I opened the fridge, pulled out the milk, and pushed the door closed, remembered I needed the cream too, and pivoted. A movement made a hundred times before, a thousand, ten thousand, except this time, instead of muscle and nerve performing their everyday miracle of coordination, I tilted to my right and started to fall. I tried to compensate, putting out my right leg, only it didn’t move, and I kept going down, and now my temple was grazing the handle of the fridge, and the milk was flying out of my hand, and I was lying in the dark, half on my back, half on my side, naked and wet, and thinking, What? What?
In the wake of catastrophe, Mara is at first supported by her closest and oldest friend, Aiyana. But Aiyana is soon pulled away, committed to two years in New Zealand (the other side of the world) on an academic grant she cannot afford to pass up.
The story Griffith then unfolds is, needless to say, a trial and a half. But don’t go into this wary of “agony porn” or an essayistic, melancholic protracted wail. Mara is spiny – tough, angry, proactive, and, at least at first, her narrative has touches of dark and almost-humorous irony:
The neurologist took me off Rebif and put me on Tecfidera, an oral drug that cost $66,000 a year.” Rebif are Tecfidera are two of a raft of drugs Mara is given, the medicinal effects of which are little known and side effects severe. “Cursory research showed it was a repurposed German psoriasis drug, which itself was a repurpose furniture fumigant.
Mara has a black belt in karate and, as she grows weaker and less balanced, the loss of this, more than a hobby, nearly a life’s passion, is devastating to her. But that kicking, rearing energy is directed into all parts of her life. At times she lashes out at others for their lack of understanding, their cold misappropriation of her frailty for her personhood. She detests the hypocrisy of those whom she has worked with in serving the “victims” (a word she quickly comes to despise) of another potentially debilitating illness, HIV/AIDS. Her former colleagues prove ill-adept at accepting Mara’s new reality:
"Mara, I’m so sorry." And I could hear it in his voice already: I was now on the other side of the divide, no longer one of Us but one of Them.
The facts unfold cleverly: As Mara is willful in ignoring the symptoms of her decline, so our perspective is limited, until a problem becomes too great to brush by, and we are struck, like a boot to the gut, when she can no longer walk save with a cane, then later requires a wheelchair, shuffled along by strangers and attendants who regard her as an empty vessel and burden. All the while, she rages.
Mara finds distraction (and potential income) founding a nonprofit for people with MS. She adopts a kitten and names her Rip. She tries group support therapies, briefly. There, an old woman, “the oldest person with MS in the world,” so the woman says, warns that she has, “‘never seen anything like your great grinning thing…. You scared? You should be. It’s aiming to kill you, and I doubt you’ll stop it.’” This as Mara begins to succumb to the mental toll of the disease: paranoid that she is being stalked.
Griffith is not a prose stylist, but the writing is always clear and direct. And the narrative proceeds with a quick pace that could make this a one-sitting, page-turner affair for some readers. Veering between psychological thriller, social criticism, and a tale of personal transformation, So Lucky asks the question – how will Mara make it through? But will that be enough for every reader? A bit of dwelling and dilating might have done this story good.
Throughout So Lucky, a persistent but entirely vague and underdeveloped sense of imminent violence recurs. This, vague and underdeveloped as it is, becomes the backbone of the novel, stemming from Mara’s paranoia and eventually un-helped by her spiny qualities, which beneath the thumb of her illness turn into aggression and bitterness. Hearing sinister laughter and checking over her shoulder are as far as this problem extends, much though it comes to dominate Mara’s life. Because this perceived threat remains paper-thin, despite Mara’s loss of wife and job and former life, the stakes never feel especially high until a possible real world, violent threat emerges out of thin air, and Mara’s paranoia comes to a coincidental head. Yet these two events arrive in the last pages and vanish as soon as they appear. Just as the reader might have caught the story in the act of absorbing one’s attention, things, as throughout, refuse to grow to something larger or interesting beyond themselves.
Ultimately, the reader will be left to question how the narrative might have been focused and finessed out, and how these subjects – violence, paranoia, loss, anger, and eventual transformation – thrilling with thematic potential, could have been better served.
Wilson Shugart is currently completing his first novel. He lives near Atlanta.