Book Review: Family History, by Johanna Emeney

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_family_history_bigFamily History by Johanna Emeney begins with a secret: Emeney’s mother is an adoptee. When Emeney’s mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, and the lines of family history become something different, Emeney and her mother both have to navigate through a landscape of hospitals and grief.

Emeney begins with her mother’s old photo albums in her poem Captions. Her album is filled with written captions, from ‘MR AND MRS DUNNE AT OURS’ to simply ‘ME’. But some of these photos are just ‘bare grey squares’. Perhaps these photos were moved around, or maybe they were taken and never returned. As a result, these words have no photo to caption. Although the past and some of its photos have gone, the album still lives on, declaring a certain family history.

And then, with the diagnosis of breast cancer, Emeney’s family starts to unravel. How large was your heart is a poem where Emeney crosses over from the medical into the poetic, proving that the two do not need to be kept separate. Emeney portrays the rush of unfamiliarity that comes with medical terminology, describing how ‘The coroner reports a haematoma / over the anterior pericardium’. It is a flow of words that means nothing to a reader like me, who doesn’t have the medical knowledge. But then Emeney unpacks it in her own tender words. Emeney claims that she has already felt the size of her mother’s heart in her own way; ‘she has felt its beat in full swell / through warm, unbroken ribs’.

Further on, in Anonymous, Emeney’s mother is reduced to a sample of tissue that will be used for cancer research. A letter labels Emeney’s mother as simply ‘YOUR DECEASED RELATIVE’. The letter ends with a simple sentence: ‘You can be assured / no one will ever know / who the donor was’. Although these words are meant to be comforting, they also cause unease. Is it that easy for a person – brain, thoughts, and all – to be reduced to a piece of tissue when it was once so much more? This is why Emeney’s poetry is so rousing: it crosses between medical terminology – ‘Today I learned that heartstrings / are called chordae tendineae’ – to the complexity of human feelings – a ‘spectacle of attachment and loss’. Emeney tries to understand moments both poetically and scientifically.

And she does it beautifully. In Dandelion, Emeney reminisces on times from her childhood, fixating on the image of cicada shells stuck on her school jumper. In the final heart wrenching verse, present day Emeney finds traces of dandelions on her clothes, and she thinks of them as ‘three white parachutes’. She sweetly describes how these little parachutes remind her of her mother. To Emeney, those dandelion strands are ‘little angels of your (her mother’s) imprint, your leaving’.

The way that Emeney combines the medical with the poetic in Family History brings the true complexity of the medical world to light. Although medical science is based on concrete fact, the people in its system are still people, and they feel a variety of emotions. It is a world where words are charged with meaning, where diagnoses and procedures change the lives of patients and their loved ones. And Emeney is there, bringing the reader into that experience. It’s not just a medical history; it’s a family history.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Family History
by Johanna Emeney
Published by Mākaro Press, part of the Hoopla series
ISBN 9780994137814

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