The plot of "The Iceberg" can be summed up in a sentence: A man gets sick and dies. Indeed, little else happens in artist turned author Marion Coutts' account of the final two years of her husband's life. Yet it is dazzling, devastating.
In her plain-spoken retelling of the commonplace human experience of illness and loss, Coutts achieves something truly extraordinary — she's created one of the most haunting and achingly honest explorations of grief in recent memory.
In 2008, Tom Lubbock, a British artist, illustrator and art critic for the Independent newspaper, a husband and the father of an 18-month-old son, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The cancer — and its related treatments — would go on to rob him of his strength, his words and, in January 2011, his life. But though she painstakingly describes the tumult of having someone you love no longer able to articulate your name, his wife Coutts' memoir isn't a search for Lubbock's unique, lost voice. It's about embracing her own, on a journey of not quite 300 elegantly composed pages into the unthinkable worst.
Coutts' tale takes a traditional arc — from a diagnosis to a burial — with the expected demarcations for hospital trips, family vacations, childhood milestones, and middle-of-the-night fears. Her writing is simple and unforced; you get a feel for what you're in for right from the start, when she announces, "The news is given verbally. We learn something. We are mortal. You might say you know this but you don't."
No florid philosophical twisting over her own thoughts. No eagerness to make it all somehow entertaining. No comforting reassurances it'll all turn out OK.
This isn't one of those stories in which disease is an obstacle to be conveniently triumphed over in the last act, nor is it an opportunity for a survivor to position herself as a brave "What I've Learned" self-help guru. Coutts, instead, brings her talent as an artist to the job of telling a tale. And like any great work of art, "The Iceberg" doesn't merely represent what it sets out to depict; it deftly communicates the emotional truth behind it.
To weather the colossal dumpster fire of a long-term personal crisis — in particular one that is assuredly not heading for a happy ending — one must enter into a world that is at once surreal and hyper-real. The proportions of one's life become suddenly thrown into weird configurations, and once-familiar rhythms take on an ominous beat. Throughout "The Iceberg," Coutts notes the ways that time "spools new," slowing to a standstill at times or evaporating in a mystery at others. She notices the flinty gray of the sky, marking it with precision. She simultaneously forgets to eat. Because that's what it's like.
She sharply observers the times when "My memory of these conversations is very accurate," while also admitting, several pages earlier, where "My memory is selective." Coutts ticks off a litany of family horrors like a shopping list: "In the space of three weeks, between us we have had hospital stays, fits, diarrhea, speech loss, tonsillitis, swollen feet, mobility loss, demoralization, ambulances, glue ear, and holidays...."
And she hones in, in a way that would have appeared impossible to describe until she came along and did it, on how a tragedy brings crushing exhaustion and terror but also, in a never wished-for way, "a precarious, difficult but also strangely wonderful time."
When "The Iceberg" was published in the United Kingdom last year, it was widely hailed by critics and won the Wellcome Book Prize. Though it will all but certainly be equally praised here in the U.S., it remains to be seen if American audiences — with our fondness for stories that involve a more kicking of butt and taking of names narrative — will embrace Coutts' Kazuo Ishiguro-like gift for intimacy and restraint.
At one point, the author herself describes the "filmic quality" of her family's days as resembling something out of Bergman: "shot flat without affect but deeply charged" — everything that makes this book so special.
There is no easy sentimentality here. This is a story about human pain and the shocking multitude of forms it can take. It is one that understands — as the title makes clear — how much depth and heft those things have.
"My tears are sonar," she writes. "They release on impact a faint understanding of what lies beneath...." That hurt can have such enormity seems unfathomable. Yet how powerful it is too. How awesome, and how beautiful it can be.
Williams is the author of the forthcoming "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles," a memoir of her experience in a clinical trial for Stage 4 cancer.
The Iceberg: A Memoir
Black Cat: 288 pp., $16 paperback