A Still Life by Josie George review – memoir of a mystery illness

Blake Morrison
·5-min read

Josie George doesn’t know what’s wrong with her. The doctors don’t know either, though for 30-odd years they’ve been coming up with different ideas. Any exertion or stimulation exhausts her. There are times when she’s too weak to leave the house. A single mum with a nine-year-old son and a mobility scooter, she never knows how her health will be from one day to the next. It sounds like the material for a misery memoir. But the miracle of A Still Life – as much a miracle as her determination to write it – is its joyousness.

By the age of eight, with pain, swollen glands and bouts of lassitude that no amount of Calpol could cure, she was already a puzzle to paediatricians. Maybe she didn’t like school, one doctor suggested; on the contrary what she hated was being stuck at home on the sofa. Her social worker mum and church worker dad did their best to keep her spirits up and there would be periods when she seemed fine – could run, pedal her bike, enjoy sleepovers with friends. Then she’d go downhill again, to be puzzled over by a new set of specialists (haematologists, rheumatologists, urologists), whose tests showed nothing amiss and made her feel like a fraud.

She started secondary school on crutches and spent her time stuck on stairs, between classrooms, till being put in the Home-Ed room, an unsuitable place for a girl who everyone said had great “potential”. If her health had been better she would have passed exams and gone to university. Instead, at 18 she was working in a shoe shop, where she met the man with whom she’d later have a child. But the marriage was sterile, the jobs she took (caring for special needs kids or elderly residents of a care home) didn’t last, and she felt guilty for letting everyone down. The problem wasn’t just her mystery illness. Something was missing; she didn’t know what.

The answer, in part, was self-knowledge – self-assertion too, which she groped towards through a blog and four years of private journals. To write a book is more audacious but her boldness has paid off. In rhythmic imitation of her stop-start life, the narrative alternates between the “then” of the past 36 years and a journal of where she is now (or was, pre-Covid, in 2019). On the face of it, nothing much happens: she sits writing at home (a small West Midlands terrace house), takes her son to school, goes to see her friend Jude, visits the local community centre. The momentum comes from her stillness, the gift of being forced to rest, the “sustainable, helpful love” of noticing things around her.

“My gaze has intensified as my body has slowed,” she writes. From her mobility scooter, in urban surroundings, she gives a new slant to nature writing, observing spring “like a warm curtain opening”, hearing dawn “spreading, bird by bird”, noting the “withered brown bowls” of cankered windfalls or “a faded hydrangea’s powder puff”. She’s alert to people, too – whether the old man in “a jumper the colour of old acorns and just-stirred gravy” or the baby “in the soft second skin of his baby-gro”. This heightened awareness to whatever she lights on – “an inked picture, a play of autumn light, a curling leaf, a face, a run of spoken words” – doesn’t cure what ails her. But it calms her and banishes fear. Rather than wasting energy on consultations, she embraces pain as “a doorway not a fist”, a chance to learn what it means to be alive. Where the diary of the Alice James, Henry James’s invalid sister, was wry and sardonic, hers is exuberant and pantheistic.

I can’t think of many books where the reader feels so passionately on the side of the narrator. It’s not that George is dependably sunny (“I will admit it: some days I feel broken”) or that she courts pity. It’s not that she underplays the privations of her illness or that she overplays the therapeutic benefits of writing about it (“Sometimes, my writing feels like hopeless desperation: a panic attack on paper”). It’s not even her vulnerability. What’s seductive is her honesty as she lays herself open and works things out on the hoof, distilling her ideas, reappraising the past, living intensely and watching intently, until – the inevitable price – she’s laid low again with chronic fatigue.

Halfway through the year something does happen: she falls in love. Fraser is older and lives in Denmark. Does he realise what he’s taking on? Will he eventually reject her, as a previous lover did? It’s perilous; the journal acquires a layer of jeopardy. But they love each other. Maybe the relationship will work out.

“Chronic illness is a terrible narrator,” she says, apologetic that she can’t end the book with a moment of redemption. The new name doctors give to her unwellness, “dysautonomia”, is no more helpful than the old ones. Undaunted, she confesses to being “embarrassed at how much I am enjoying my life, especially when the world insists on telling me that I really shouldn’t”. An invisible illness, they call it. But she tells us what it looks and feels like. And makes herself visible in the process.

A Still Life is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.