Love like salt

Love Like Salt. Helen Stevenson.

About half way through Helen Stevenson’s Love Like Salt I thought I had missed something. What was is it? Ah… it was the voices of other people. Nico, Sabine, Piere Daniel, Helen’s cousin for starters. There are a lot of people in the book but we really only see them through Helen’s eyes. But then all memoirs and biographies are partial acts of self-censorship and remembrance as it is only the voice of one person despite their attempts to be balanced.

Her memoir of her struggle to bring up her daughter Clara who has cystic fibrosis is quite an ordeal. It moves from diagnosis in England to settling down in France and then back to England to find a settled lifestyle away from prejudice and the French education system. Not exactly a veil of tears but it was clearly not easy for the family.

There was the lack of empathy from some adults – especially in France – the bullying French children, unsympathetic teachers and patronising priests clearly hurt as she recalls in a series of incidents and detailed conversations.

But as you read there are questions that arise over the difficulties of life in France compared to the near paradise Stevenson finds for her daughter and family when they move to Somerset. Could the French really be so awful when her youngest daughter clearly likes it so much compared to Clara? Are French schools so dreadful? Isn’t bullying and name calling a universal problem? And apart from the music, why is the sceptic drawn to the church and then is surprised by the archaic attitudes of its believers and in particular the less than helpful opinion of the Roman Catholic priests?

These concerns aside, the memoir is rich in thought and observation; it is both philosophical and enlightening, and above all beautifully crafted. It is a very easy and interesting read in part due to the candid thoughts of the writer which at times feels more like a series of magazine features. There is an intimacy as she confides in the reader her inner most thoughts which is a real strength.

The one tone that flows through every page are the insights that Stevenson gives into cystic fibrosis. Its affects, its history and the symptoms – and how living with a disabled child transforms the lives of everyone in the family. It is impossible to underestimate the consequences on the parents, siblings and friends such a condition can have.

The strengths of the meandering narrative also include the stylish prose and of the many back stories woven into the 284 page memoir. There’s the black comedy of her mother’s dementia as they drive back from Auntie Dorothy’s. Her mum is difficult, cantankerous and sanctimonious and is in denial Clara is ill which irritates Helen.

“You’re saying she has an illness that’s unspeakable, that people shouldn’t have to know about. In case it’s too painful for them. For them!”

“Don’t shout, dear, you’ll wake the baby.”
“Clara, her name’s Clara!”

“That’s as maybe, but she’s only a baby.”

“What do you mean, ‘That’s as maybe?’ What kind of an expression is that? It’s her name?”

And it is this conversation that is repeated in different forms and with different people throughout the story with varying scenarios. There is always the misunderstood and frustrated mother, and always the adult who tries to dismiss or downplay Clara’s illness. Clara’s life expectancy is not good – and there is no cure yet and perhaps this is at the root of the writer’s soul searching and a feeling the world has played her daughter a terrible hand.

Back in England and her ear for the negative continues: “When Clara ran five kilometres recently in aid of the Cyctic Fibrosis Trust, one boy in her year said his father had told him not to sponsor her, because he paid his taxes to fund a health service, and that charities shouldn’t be fund-raising for medical care.”

Coping is a constant battle which chews away at Stevenson as she battles the negatives. But there are positive moments when people say things which help her to see life a little more clearly.

She writes of one incident when a Swiss woman mentions her own daughter died of cot death on Christmas Eve. She says: “People said to me, ‘You must think all the time, why me?’ but I don’t ever think that,’ she said. ‘I think, ‘Why not me?’”

Harry Mottram

Four stars

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