Book Review: The History of My Body
The thing that struck me most about Sharon Heath’s The History of My Body is the deep authenticity of the protagonist’s voice.
The story is told in first person by Fleur Robins–daughter of an extravagantly wealthy fundamentalist nutjob politician father and alcoholic mother–who, at first, exhibits signs of being touched neurologically (never officially diagnosed, her disengaged parents and their far-more-engaged staff assume that she’s autistic).
Though we meet Fleur when she’s barely pre-pubescent, and she recalls her early childhood for us, including her propensity for list making and journal keeping, her friendship with a small, imaginary man named Uncle Bob (from the phrase Bob’s your uncle), with her comatose grandfather, and with language and increasingly difficult books.
When she’s eleven, after her grandfather’s death, she gets a seventeen-year-old male tutor, called Adam, who is also the son of a politician and so a kindred spirit, who turns her on to physicists and philosophers and literature, and from there, Fleur’s life improves, with some wrecking ball detours that I’ll leave to you for the reading.
As the story unwinds, Fleur supplants her masochism with masturbation, finds a remarkable mentor, solace in Campbell’s Chicken Soup body odor, doubt, a relationship with her mother, and finally friendship with a girl her own age.
Somehow, the protagonist’s voice is so genuine that it manages to obliterate any potential pretension in her precociousness, or in her love and grasp of quantum physics, or in her references to Sartre and any number of other famous (and not-so-famous) philosophers, scientists, and authors. Even as the story lands her a highly prestigious scholarly award at a very early age, Fleur is chronically sympathetic.
I will attribute this unlikely success to Sharon Heath’s unbelieveably graceful rendering of Fleur’s very believable cadence, even despite her unthinkable intellect and constant personal and social blunders–at least as she perceives them–, her unique personal lexicon which includes such semantic doppelgangers such as tweeter, flapping, ugga-umphing, voidish, Sister Flatulencia, etc–endears her to the reader again and again.
Too, the vividness with which Heath conjures the emotional experience of being an adolescent female is unfailing. The book is often funny, even when dealing with the dull ache of adolescence, rejection, death.
Heath weaves in social issues like abortion and alcoholism and political issues like war and big oil with equal light-handedness. The narrative never gives the reader a sense of being judged, nor does it indict anyone. Heath manages to garner good will for parties on both sides of each issue (if not for each issue).
Fleur often finds herself personally sullied on both sides of issues, but she does not whine. She introspects. She wallows a little. Then she emerges stronger and just as clever.
Heath manages the crass and the philsophical, the olfactory and mundane with equal aplomb. I have rarely read a book that was so consistently beautifully rendered, and I would implore you all to order a copy today.
I leave you with the following passage:
For the next week or so, I was forced to go about my daily routine with the handicap of keeping at least one hand covering my chest (which is not so easy to do when you need to eat, drink, pet Jillily, and wipe your poo and pee) just to make sure Grandfather’s ghost didn’t leak out and float over to Father’s house to haunt him forever for killing our tree–in some respects not such an unsatisfying prospect but for the fact that it would leave me with a chasm in my heart I could never hope to fill.
Click her name to listen to the Writers Talk Podcast with Heath.
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