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Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies: Longlisted for the Booker Prize

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Lia struggled to connect with her mother, but Iris and Lia have such a lovely, poignantly close bond that is tested throughout the book (but does not break), as Iris comes-of-age amid the complicated world of school politics and interpersonal relationships, all while Lia is dying. Her writing has featured in The Times and her short films have screened at festivals around the world. She is co-writing a TV series currently in development with Various Artists Ltd. In 2019 she completed the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course.Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is her first novel. Judge Tom Gatti on Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies

Here is a book to dance and sing about. An extraordinary, kaleidoscopic dive into language."— Daisy Johnson, author of Sisters Anne had insisted she be there. She had accompanied Lia to her chemotherapy sessions a few times before, and Lia was convinced Anne had decided hospitals were safe, perhaps even ideal environments for Mothers Making Amends. It was the fact of their being supervised by nurses, perhaps. Restricted by noise regulations. Rooted to the place, immovable, through the drip in Lia’s arm. Lia was trying not to feel pleased to see her. Today I might trace the rungs of her larynx, or tap at her trachea like the bones of a xylophone, or cook up or undo some great horrors of my own because here is the thing about bodies: they are impossibly easy to prowl, without anyone suspecting a thing. To scream is to flood just as much as it is to whisper, and brave is certainly to laugh just as it is to beat. And maybe, in a world where fish is to run and bird is to slide, I would still have my breasts. Lia liked this phase more. It felt grown-up. Bold. She drew Yellow often as the fluid intangible thing that it was, sometimes a blot of gold light, a sharp buttercup tongue, a smudge of a small girl hiding in a streetlamp. All the codes around the house became yellow; the Wi-Fi, the house alarm. Lia would lace out yellow word-talks at night, discuss its pigment-science and etymology;

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Both doctor and Wikipedia said: when breast cancer spread to the lungs or liver it could be treated but could not be cured. Harry never used to think awful things like this. The image floated to the electric bit at the very top of his brain and vanished. One can train awful thoughts to perform acts of all kinds, Harry thought, even vanishing acts. Lia did not know the extent of these thoughts, the extent to which they unravelled her husband. They had got steadily worse over the years and he knew it had a lot to do with this seeing Lia as a body, These gruesome images had soon planted themselves in her dreams, dreams that she would present proudly the next morning at the kitchen table.

It would be neglectful of me to omit the part Iris plays in this. It is revealed at the end of the book that Matthew was her biological father, not Harry. I suspected this throughout the book, so it wasn’t too surprising, as Matthew was important to Lia for the longest time. She literally is half Lia and half Matthew, the bridge between Lia’s past and future. As one life is coming to an end, another is just finding her way in the world. She leant her head lightly against Lia’s arm for a moment, before reaching down to dip her finger in the yellow paint. She stretched her arm up, marked her mother’s forehead like a blessing, and then did the same to herself. Lia smiled sadly, and they both continued to paint with their matching triangle forehead tattoos and their individual rollers pushing, coating, sponging harder with every stroke as if they could erase all the facts and start again. As Lia faces death, she is heavy with regret and guilt, and she also thinks of Matthew, the man she did not marry. Nevertheless, she finds solace in her loving relationship with her daughter. For Mortimer, her debut novel is also an elegy for her dead mother, to whom she was very close. As a writer, she had processed her cancer in columns. And she left the family diaries, the contents of which led Mortimer to the central theme of her novel: once in a blue moon is it a ‘turn-on’ for me to gravitate ‘more’ toward the lyrical, poetic, and the cerebral THAN my need for a specific type of emotional connection.Despite these obstacles, Iris I think comes out to be the strongest of all the characters in this book.

Despite its title, not every character in Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies has a body. Lia shares the spotlight with “I, itch of ink, think of thing”, an impish, verbose and mysterious narrator that appears to be neither human nor nonhuman. Confined to its own short chapters early on, its signature bold type begins to infiltrate the standard third-person narration. In the final sections, the voice and Lia are inseparable. The hybrid character describes “the quiet passing of the I / into the vast and / boundless / you”. But once in a while there is nothing better than connecting deeply with intellectual-one-of-a- kind intrigue. Maddie Mortimer’s Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is a gripping novel about Lia, a mother battling a devastating illness. The book has flashes between Lia’s present life with her fabulous husband Harry and wonderful daughter Iris, Lia’s past life, and the voice of her illness. When Iris was seven, her teacher asked everyone to write down what their parents’ jobs were and also suggested they drew a picture as a Creative Exercise.Winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize 2022, longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize Anne was wearing the same grey cardigan she wore for special days like Palm Sunday or the Pentecost. She had meant this thoughtfully, but it just made everything feel monumental and sombre. When a sudden diagnosis upends Lia’s world, the boundaries between her past and her present begin to collapse. Deeply buried secrets stir awake. As the voice prowling in Lia takes hold of her story, and the landscape around becomes indistinguishable from the one within, Lia and her family are faced with some of the hardest questions of all: how can we move on from the events that have shaped us, when our bodies harbour everything? And what does it mean to die with grace, when you’re simply not ready to let go? I think often of my early travelling days, when I was just getting accustomed to the theatre of disguise, finding ways of existing without being noticed.

Today I might trace the rungs of her larynx or tap at her trachea like the bones of a xylophone or cook up or undo some great horrors of my own because here is the thing about bodies: they are impossibly easy to prowl, without anyone suspecting a thing.” Should the disembodied voice be interpreted as a personification of cancer? On the one hand, it explains with relish that “when pain replaces the proteins in [Lia’s] skin […] I’m in”. On the other hand, it knows a lot of trivia – about subjects ranging from Sex and the City to the nerve endings in the human clitoris, to female campers in Yellowstone national park – and makes very human, very lyrical pronouncements, such as that the cello is “the wisest instrument”. An extraordinary debut, unlike anything I've read. Wildly inventive, poetic and poignant, this is a rare gem of a novel that took my imagination to new places and touched my heart." —Emma Stonex, Sunday Times bestselling author of The Lamplighters But the focus is easily distracted. There is a passage during which sperm cells moving through a uterus are compared to the thousands of people forced to leave the Chernobyl exclusion zone in 1986. The voice set in bold type concludes the extended analogy by saying it is “a common misconception that creation and discovery don’t require / rather a lot of destruction”. In this context, harnessing the suffering of the former residents of Pripyat is bewildering.Perhaps because I already knew about the unique character- voice: Cancer — and a mother dying — entangled with mother/daughter issues - before I started listening I was able to keep some distance from the gut- wrenching sadness. Mortimer perfectly developed her characters. None of them are saints, and she didn’t lean on cliches to carry Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies. Despite the violence of her bible tongue and the crippling silent codes she shrouded every inch of their lives in, for those five seconds, with slices of stained window light behind her, she was the saintliest thing in the world. Or is it that the sinister nature of this antagonist is that the reader finds themselves almost pitying it? I haven’t figured it out for myself, even after much reflection on the book afterwards. Either way, the cancer becomes a haunting narrator.

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