Reviewed: Body Friend, Katherine Brabon, Ultimo
When I was 19, I had my ankle fused. To fix it, I underwent a procedure called a subtalar fusion, which used a bone graft from my shin and two huge screws to put the joint in place. In the unnamed narrator of Katherine Brabon’s Body Friend, I saw a mirror of myself from that point in my life. Someone young, suffering with pain from a source that no one can identify, hoping that surgery will ‘fix’ her. Likewise, the narrator sees a mirror of herself in two women she meets in the aftermath of surgery. Through these three women, Body Friend explores concepts of pain, illness, the self and recovery—how they influence and are influenced by one another.
After undergoing surgery to alleviate the pain caused by an unnamed chronic autoimmune condition, Brabon’s narrator meets two women: Frida, at her hydrotherapy class, and Sylvia, at a local park. Through these encounters, the narrator discovers that the women bear striking resemblance to her. Most importantly, Sylvia and Frida also struggle with the same condition.
The narrator’s life prior to these encounters is one of isolation: even though the able-bodied world around her expects that she will ‘recover’ and be ‘normal’ once again, the pain never fades entirely. She can’t find other women like her either; those experiencing similar pain are much older, and the surgery the narrator undergoes is one performed almost exclusively on the elderly. When she meets Sylvia and Frida, the narrator finds solidarity and shared understanding.
Through these friendships, Body Friend examines the self and how malleable it is. The narrator seems frustrated with her (able-bodied) partner’s freedom to do what he wants whenever he likes, unencumbered by pain, exhaustion, or perceptions of how a ‘sick person’ should present. In her attempts to find relief, the narrator becomes consumed by her friendships with Frida and Sylvia. She drags herself out of the house to meet up with Frida even during winter. At Sylvia’s urging, she lies in bed for days. Despite the narrator’s insistence that she isn’t looking for a doppelgänger (‘that object of cultural obsession’), she remakes herself accordingly as these friendships begins to shape her days.
Brabon’s voice is contemplative and lyrical. She makes a deliberate choice not to focus on the pain itself; the narrator declares early in the novel that she doesn’t want to ‘pretend to be able to describe the pain experience’. Instead, her world is one of heightened sensitivity, with temperatures, textures and emotions rendered in the kind of detail that few of us tend to take stock of in everyday life.
This sensory exploration gives us an awareness of being in the world. When the narrator goes swimming with Frida, the light, breeze, water and movements are almost palpable and invigorating to read. By contrast, quiet slow mornings with Sylvia feel uncomfortably cloying as the two women spend their days indoors exclusively with honey, tea, wine and sleep. Even though they invite the reader to luxuriate in rest, it descends to a point where we become trapped and languishing in the narrator’s home.
Oscillating between the extremes of movement and stillness, the narrator finds she is never entirely content with one or the other. She struggles to find her own unique balance and approach to recovery, especially as Frida pushes exercise to the point of re-injury, while Sylvia insists on rest to the point of stagnation. But her character is somewhat underdeveloped—we don’t really learn anything else about her other than her pain and her experience living with it. This slightly shallow characterisation is fortunately offset by Brabon’s beautiful prose and insightful depiction of chronic, invisible pain.
Body Friend is a sensitive narrative about grappling with a sick body and the difficulty of balancing movement and rest, and Brabon deftly illustrates the process of navigating so-called ‘recovery’ and all the highs and lows that entails.