Posted in Book Reviews

Consumed – Herald Review

Arifa Akbar’s sister died of the same illness that killed her favourite poet, John Keats

By Shirley Whiteside


Consumed: A Sister’s Story

Arifa Akbar

Sceptre, £16.99

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.

Posted in Book Reviews

Love Without End – Herald review

Love Without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard

By Melvyn Bragg,

Review by Shirley Whiteside

In 12th Century France, Heloise, a clever and well-educated young woman, and Peter Abelard, a revolutionary philosopher, became famous for their intense and scandalous love affair. That they were separated by the strict morals and mores of their day made their love story endure. Their letters tell of the triumphs and tragedies they experienced, and how their love withstood their years apart. Melvyn Bragg uses the frame of a man writing about the pair in 2017, helped by his estranged daughter, to explore and comment on the lovers’ story.

Heloise, renowned for her learning and exquisite command of Latin, leaves the isolation of a countryside convent and moves to Paris to live with her uncle, Canon Fulbert, unaware that he is actually her father. Forbidden from attending lectures at the nearby Cathedral school because she is a woman, she rails against the quality of the tutor she is offered. ‘An ignorant Bible-babbling clerk, who comes to this house and tells me what I knew as a child.’ Heloise, like everyone else in Paris, wants to be taught by Peter Abelard, a brilliant, radical philosopher who is becoming famous throughout France for his scholarly, ecclesiastical lectures. Bragg succeeds in showing how important philosophical debates about the true meaning of the Bible were in this century, and how the rivalries between philosophers became ferociously competitive. Canon Fulbert manages to secure the services of Abelard as tutor to Heloise, revelling in the reflected glory this appointment shines on him. Abelard and Heloise’s intellectual jousting soon leads to a feverish, physical attraction and the two become lovers, hiding their lust in plain sight of the unwitting Canon. When Fulbert does find out about the affair, he executes a hideous revenge on Abelard which Bragg relates in clinical detail.

Bragg’s depiction of 12th-century Paris is oddly lacking in atmosphere. The bustling city, a world centre of learning, does not feel like a dangerous hotbed of radical new ideas. Bragg keeps telling the reader that Abelard is charismatic but he fails to show why women swoon over him and his students are so devoted. Similarly, Heloise is a nebulous figure and does not spring into life until she becomes a Bride of Christ and struggles to leave her love for Abelard behind. Their legendary romance was said to be astonishingly passionate but in Bragg’s hands their couplings are dull and prosaic. Even as their relationship turns from lust to love, there is no impression of an irresistible magnetism drawing them together.

Back in the present-day, Arthur is in Paris researching and writing a novel about Heloise and Abelard when Julia, his daughter, unexpectedly arrives for a visit. She offers to read and comment on Arthur’s work, hoping it will bring them closer. Damaged by her parents’ divorce, she wants to know why her father walked out of her life. Their relationship shares some traits of Heloise and Abelard’s, as Julia questions and spars with Arthur’s interpretation of the lovers’ letters. Julia finds Arthur’s willingness to excuse Abelard’s arrogant and chauvinist behaviour puzzling. Equally, Arthur cannot understand why Julia can’t see the couple in the context of medieval society.
As a frame, Arthur and Julia’s story feels more like a vehicle for Bragg to comment on the various interpretations of Heloise and Abelard’s relationship than a story strand populated by flesh-and-blood characters. Arthur is one-dimensional while Julia’s childish goading of her father soon becomes wearing. Their story lacks tension and the resolution is a damp squib. Perhaps Bragg felt that the intricacies of life in the 1100s needed explanation and context for the modern reader, but the father and daughter story feels redundant.

The lives of Heloise and Abelard were full of drama but in this plodding novel their story is diminished and lacks the thrill and turmoil of forbidden love. Bragg has obviously spent time researching the religious politics of the period and reading the couple’s letters but this has resulted in a rather dry lecture rather than a story full of lust and jeopardy. An opportunity to bring these fascinating characters to life again has been sadly missed.