Arifa Akbar’s sister died of the same illness that killed her favourite poet, John Keats
Consumed: A Sister’s Story
Review by Shirley Whiteside
Reading Arifa Akbar’s moving memoir brought to mind a quote from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Consumed is subtitled, A Sister’s Story, and centres around Akbar’s quest to understand Fauzia, her older sister, who died suddenly after years of mental and physical ill-health. Akbar is cast adrift on a sea of memories that take on new meanings as she re-assesses her relationships with her family, and Fauzia in particular. Consumed is not a linear account of Akbar’s life. Instead, she expertly intertwines past and present, exploring the healing power of art, the history of tuberculosis, and the shocking loss of her artist sister.
Akbar’s recollection of her early life in Lahore, Pakistan, is full of sunshine and a sense of freedom. Looking back with adult eyes, she wonders whether Fauzia’s later troubles had their origin there. For reasons that never become clear, Fauzia’s father disliked his oldest daughter and failed to hide the fact. For Akbar, the reverse was true. Her father adored her, and she has joyful memories of spending time with him. The family left their familiar life in Lahore behind to move to London in search of work. Homeless and penniless, they find a room in a derelict squat in Hampstead. Akbar draws the comparisons between her family’s poverty and the affluent area in which they previously lived without a hint of self-pity. Her unsentimental style serves her story well, the emotional highs and lows given more power due to the lack of mawkishness.
Akbar’s mother, Bela, emerges as an unlikely heroine, refusing to teach her daughters to cook and keep house because she doesn’t want them to endure an unhappy marriage like her own. She makes an important contribution to this memoir, finding old photos and recalling painful events, helping her daughter untangle their family story.
When Akbar receives a phone call informing her of Fauzia’s illness, the sisters had not been close for several years. She goes to visit Fauzia at the Royal Free hospital, assuming that her sister will be discharged in a few days as she had been before. The doctors struggle to find the underlying cause of Fauzia’s symptoms and it is only after her death that a rare form of tuberculosis is confirmed. This leads Akbar to explore the life of the poet Keats, a favourite of Fauzia, who succumbed to TB aged just 25. This was not unusual in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the disease reached epidemic levels in Europe. Often associated with extreme poverty and deprivation, the illness’s physical manifestations – glittering, fevered eyes, crimson lips, and emaciation – would became fashionable, a sort of consumption chic, echoed in the 1990s fashion for so-called heroin chic. For the healthy, make-up to whiten the skin and redden the lips became popular society accessories.
Akbar’s desperate need to fill the yawning gap left by Fauzia’s death is skilfully and touchingly conveyed. She does not spare herself as she picks apart the fabric of her family’s life, from her parents’ unhappy marriage to her exasperation as Fauzia entered another phase of self-destruction. The relationship between the sisters is complex, ranging from their intimacy while sharing a bedroom as teenagers to their drifting apart as adults. Guilt plays a significant role, with Akbar feeling she didn’t do enough to help Fauzia, while also feeling that her sister took up too much of her time and energy. Disease consumed Fauzia, and Akbar became consumed with a need to understand her sister. It takes time but rediscovering Fauzia’s art finally brings Akbar a measure of peace. This is a beautifully written memoir with the ghost of Fauzia haunting every page.