Book Review: How does it hurt? by Stephanie de Montalk

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_how_does_it_hurtA review should, as a rule, be an impersonal thing. But occasionally a book falls into your hands that resounds with you in such a tortuously familiar way that it’s impossible not to feel your own related experiences playing in the background as your read. With that in mind, this is a review of Stephanie de Montalk’s How Does It Hurt?, my reading of which was underpinned by my own experiences with chronic pain and illness and the medical world.

How does it hurt? is both informative and intimate, with her research into chronic pain constantly underscored by her own experiences as both nurse and patient. It is at times terrifying, other times upsetting. But it is also both entirely engrossing and beautifully written.

In the first section ‘The Shirt of Nessos: An essay on the experience of writing about pain’, de Montalk mentions the idea that the English language and literary canon fails us when we try to talk about pain, specifically referring to Virginia Woolf’s words on the subject. There is definitely truth in de Montalk’s observations, but she herself proves very capable at recreating in a very visceral manner, time and time again, the sensation of being in constant chronic pain.

‘[The] pain had escalated beyond any level at which I had known it before. It dragged: a cat at the curtains. It burned: a smokeless flame, a coal smouldering. It drilled. It needled like crushed glass.’

For anyone who has also experienced this kind of pain, these descriptions feel all too prickly and familiar. As she goes on to say later, “[severe chronic pain] waits in the mind as if haunting the wood of an instrument long played, storing and orchestrating sounds for the future.’ De Montalk is known as a biographer and a poet – How Does It Hurt? turns the biographical eye in on herself, and her poetic voice shines through in the prose as well as the poetry snippets that are scattered throughout the book.

A bit over half of the book is memoir; the second half is a complementary collection of creative explorations on the lives of other writers who have focused on pain and of de Montalk’s own poetry. The memoir section takes us through her earliest days of medical recollection, to her nursing training, and most significantly, the ongoing saga of her experience with pain.

As well as a journey through time and through health lows and highs, the memoir takes us across the globe. The ill-administered anaesthetic during a C-section in 1970’s Hong Kong may be hard to beat in terms of squeamish horror, but the constant rumblings of pelvic nerve pain are equally unsettling in their own way: a contrast altogether appropriate for a book that describes the differences between acute and chronic pain. De Montalk describes the hopeful medical developments taking place through research happening in Sydney and Nantes; and Poland as a place both of family history and of grievous injury. Book-ending all of this, New Zealand is placed as both the beginning of the story and the present-day end.

The book is serious in content, but that doesn’t mean it’s constantly bogged down with a serious tone. References and quotes flit from Nietzsche to Cole Porter to Frida Kahlo. The ‘interviews’ and pieces on other writers (namely Alphonse Daudet (aka ‘The Vendor of Happiness’), Harriet Martineau and Aleksaner Wat provide different kinds of voices – keeping things fresh while not deviating from the overarching intent. And an ongoing story of trees – conifer, pine, macrocarpa – provides parallels with de Montalk’s own experiences, with the epilogue concluding, ‘It’s strange…the way it still dominates the landscape from our place, but from here it seems unremarkable.’

In How Does It Hurt?, I found a voice I recognised, and one that many others will also be able to relate to. For some, it will be reassuring, in a way, to see experiences not dissimilar from their own on paper. For others, it will be an eye-opening read – describing sensations and circumstances hitherto unknown.

Regardless of your own experiences with chronic pain, How Does It Hurt? is an important and beautiful book, both tragic and hopeful.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry, bookseller at Unity Books, Wellington and freelance writer

How does it hurt? 
by Stephanie de Montalk
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739698

Book Review: Sport 42, edited by Fergus Barrowman

cv_sport_42Available in selected bookstores now.

Reviewing an issue of a literary journal is a rather curious thing. You’re given the issue—in this case, Sport 42, the latest issue of that well loved landmark of Kiwi lit—and you look inside and see not only a clutch of short stories, but also a hefty double handful of poetry, and a couple of essays, and despite the disparate genres and the disparate levels of experience of the disparate writers (some fresh out of IIML, some already well established), you are told “Go! Go forth and review!” And you look down at this overflowing buffet of words in your right hand and you say, “Um. Ok. Sure. How are you supposed to eat an elephant again?”

Despite my trepidation (Sport 42 boasts a lot of poetry, and I am not a poet), I remembered that I can in fact recognize fine writing when I read it, and Sport 42 has a great deal of fine writing on display in this issue. In particular, the pieces of writing I responded to with the greatest enthusiasm were always the pieces where the style matched, supported and enhanced the content. Hence why Pip Adam’s story “Tragedy of the Commons” continues to ring in my mind; the story is disorienting to read, and there is a stone of despair in its belly, but this is the experience and point of view of Adam’s protagonist too, who looks out at a drenched Christchurch through dead, disoriented eyes.

Lawrence Patchett’s taut writing was wonderful to read too—no fat, all muscle. I also greatly enjoyed the economy on display in both Breton Dukes’ and Uther Dean’s work. Dukes’ very short short stories were each only an A5 page long but nevertheless scooped together sharp characterisation, metaphor, dialogue, depth, plot and a character called Raimundo (and how can you go wrong with a character called that?) Uther Dean’s collection of haiku also managed to say a lot with a little, using the haiku form to perfectly (and often weirdly) present some of the grains of absurdity or sadness scattered through our lives: (“All the sad robots/Pretend to robot smile/At their robot friends.”) I also gravitated towards those pieces that seemed to open a door for us to drift out of real life and into dream or memory, as in Frances Samuel’s “Vending Machine”, and I also enjoyed Bill Manhire’s “Bridle Song”, which was zany as heck right up until it became very troubling (“pyong-yang-a-lang, pyong-yang-a-loo/dear leader says he’s coming soon for you”).

Stephanie de Montalk’s ‘fact-ional’ interview with Alphonse Daudet (who died in 1897) was a highly absorbing piece of writing that also merged reality or fact with pure fiction, but which always felt truthful. de Montalk imagines going back in time to meet Daudet who suffered from the neurodegeneration typical of advanced venereal disease. She gives Daudet a voice, imagines his character based on his writing, imagines how he might sit, speak and act, while still incorporating facts and analysis and moving the interview through meditations on chronic pain and suffering. This was a truly masterful piece of writing, and it exemplifies why literary journals like Sport must continue to exist. I admit to some exasperation at the several pieces of writing made of well turned out words but little real feeling (as far as I could tell), but there was more than enough in this issue to show the importance of having this kind of outlet for creative writing. Long live Sport, and here’s to issue number 43!

Review by Febriani Idrus

Sport 42
Edited by Fergus Barrowman
Victoria University Press