In The Iceberg, Marion Coutts details the journey from her husband’s diagnosis of a brain tumour to his eventual death. Her husband’s tumour was in the part of the brain that affected speech and understanding of words. Yet during this time their son is learning to talk. This is an interesting book, beautifully written, but I didn’t get to grips with it in the way I thought I would.
For the most part, this is not an emotional narrative; Coutts details what she did and not how she felt. Perhaps Coutts wanted to articulate what she was going through without using the vocabulary many would use in this situation; perhaps she didn’t want it to be a misery memoir. But without understanding her, as well as Tom’s, emotions the book became difficult to empathise with, even though I thought I would have been able to. Coutts talks of a time when she was at a party, when she ‘snapped like a dry twig’ but we don’t hear an outburst of emotion: it is neutralised, tamed. Of course, icebergs are much bigger than they seem to be. But this very iceberg-ness keeps its readers at a distance, but Coutts does invite the reader in to the mechanics of her family’s everyday lives. Three-hundred pages of this became difficult for me to read; and because it is narrated chronologically there is nothing to want to spur the reader on. It is the mechanics of misery.
Tom’s eventual death was difficult and upsetting; here, Coutts’ brevity and unwillingness to reveal her feelings fell apart slightly, of course it did. I wish we’d got to know Tom a little bit before his illness, or we’d heard about the baby being born or their relationship beforehand. The three characters are all the same: Tom is ill, their child is unaware and learning, and Coutts is in between trying to hold things down, the iceberg remaining cool to give people she loved the illusion of normality. Obviously, there is no character arc: the reader knows the impending doom is coming, as did Coutts.
There is some beautiful writing here, reminding me of Woolf at times. Coutts becomes obsessed with death at one point:
‘Today I hear death in all things. I hear it in Brixton, in Stockwell, in Herne Hill, in the streets around the park and off the High Street. It does the thing it has always done; acts as a counter and beater and engine, driving blood around my body and to my eyes so that I can see the world before me and all the people in the world afresh […] All is mundane and all is exalted.’
This lyricism works on an intellectual level. I think Coutts may be trying to find the beauty in dying; trying to craft a poetic and artistic articulation of grief. But this one fell slightly off-key to me.