The Museum of Words by Georgia Blain – book review

by Mark Broatch / 05 December, 2017
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Georgia Blain: joys and insights. Photo/Andrew G Taylor

A writer facing death from a brain tumour offers up a grateful account of her “life in words”.

It would be a stretch to say I am enthusiastic about illness memoirs.

Of Christopher Hitchens’ memoir-in-columns, Mortality, and the English art critic Tom Lubbock’s Until Further Notice, I Am Alive, both from five years ago, I wrote: “These brief, handsome hardbacks are their accounts – moving but unsentimental, visceral but thoughtful – of life after diagnosis. Both desperately want to live. Both want to make sense of their lives, and their potential deaths.”

Georgia Blain’s The Museum of Words deserves similarly unrestrained praise. The Sydney writer, who died in December last year, had the same tumour as Lubbock, a glioblastoma multiforme stage 4. She shared the same dread, and her illness memoir – a term she uses, when speaking of Lubbock and novelist Jenny Diski, who died of cancer last year – is easily as good. Museum tells of her discovery of the tumour, aged 50, by way of collapsing on to a bed of jacaranda and flame-tree blossoms.

Like the two Brits, she feared for her ability to communicate (Hitchens possibly losing what his wife called “his perfect voice” to throat cancer and Lubbock his sinewy facility for language); she had already been aware of a problem finding the right word that she knew was more than forgetfulness. At around the same time, the dementia diagnosis of her mother, broadcaster Anne Deveson, is confirmed and her close friend, expatriate Kiwi writer Rosie Scott, finds she is losing her language and her life to the same aggressive little marble in her head.

Blain seamlessly reveals joys – her daughter Odessa is finding her feet in words – and complications of her family, and manages to provide some keen insights into the art and graft of telling stories.

I’d not heard of Blain because, as a rule, we don’t read Australians and they don’t read us. But her books, novels for adults and young adults, short stories and a memoir, regularly found themselves on awards shortlists. Museum is calm and tender and wise and brisk: you can read it in an hour or two. There are a couple of minor repetitions, which are forgivable if – it’s not entirely clear – the book was formed partly from columns she wrote for an Australian newspaper.

“I would like to end this with the three of us still alive,” she writes. “This miniature is my life in words, and I have been so grateful for every minute of it.”

THE MUSEUM OF WORDS, by Georgia Blain (Scribe, $38)

This article was first published in the October 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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