In the aftermath of serious illness, Harriet Mercer explores painful and often traumatic experiences in a narrative that beautifully renders what is still, too often, “unthinkable / unthought”.
Gargoyles is the memoir of Harriet Mercer, the manager of a contemporary jewellery gallery, who nearly died just weeks after her fortieth birthday. She spent the subsequent six weeks, sleepless, in Charing Cross Hospital. A hidden angiomyolipoma – a usually benign tumour of the kidney, most common in women – had grown to burst, suspending Harriet between life and death, person and patient, medical apparatus and breathing body. Over the next six weeks, time was replaced by intervals of pain medication, blood tests, and memories of the often fraught relationships that had marked her life.
This pain is written with incredible tenderness and accuracy, from the little that I could share of Harriet’s experience, in Gargoyles. As a reader I sense she has spent her life learning how to articulate pain; she writes eloquently, expressing her experience in hospital through fragmented utterances, others’ words, shapeshifting photographs, critical essays, and enjoyably wry – though undoubtedly traumatic – reminiscences of her slow recovery from both physical and emotional pains. One photograph shows a blade of grass, speckled with drops of dew, yet after reading the preceding chapter the blade has transformed into a tiny, fragile vein, frozen still and almost buckling under the weight of thick globules of ice cold plasma that, resisting, push up Harriet’s arm. My own arm goes cold. I wonder just what the world outside of hospital looks, feels, smells, tastes, and sounds like after one’s perception of bodily boundaries and known sensations has been so radically shifted. I wonder if every blade of dewy grass now feels cold.
‘Language is Pain (for pain is a place)’. This chapter is an essay, and begins with a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, one which sets the scene for the scarcity of time, words, and paper dedicated, in the English language, to the expression of illness. Woolf notes that, in spite of the excess of language grown around “the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear”, for illness, or indeed for pain, we have “no words”. Mercer challenges Woolf, arguing that we always have expression: “our language may be interrupted in pain; the words, though, are always there”. And it is through this relationship set up between language, words, and pain that Mercer slowly reveals her recovery throughout the book, not once undermining the new onslaught of pain with which recovery comes, but rather using the reemergence of words, often lost or just unreachable, to express the ways in which pain and its associated remedies can steal our bank of linguistic connections to the outside world.
Enter the inside world. We go inwards, backwards, meeting Mercer as a child, a teen, a young woman who has lost her father, been the victim of sexual abuse, witnessed too many deaths, and lost one almost life in utero. These are psychoanalytic ruptures, time punctures, gargoyles. They work alongside the collaged structure of the book to destabilise the flow of time throughout, echoing for me the psychoanalytic writings of Freud, Lacan, and Kristeva, and opening Mercer’s book into a wider field of écriture féminine. Indeed, just as Rosemarie Putnam Tong states that Hélène “Cixous…urged women to put themselves-the unthinkable/unthought-into words”, Mercer challenges language with the task of finding expression for the traumatic and painful experiences that have also remained “unthinkable/unthought” in the English language. To do so, Mercer writes alongside other authors and theorists, disrupts linear narratives, leaves gaps, voids, and spaces in time, and allows images to speak in place of words.
Of all these allusions, Hilary Mantel’s reflections on pain in Giving Up The Ghost revisit me; the flickers of a migraine emerge, and “it’s at the left-hand side of my body that visions manifest; it’s my left eye that is peeled”. For Mantel, just as for Mercer, pain comes with illusions and spectres. The eye portal between inside and outside worlds begins to malfunction. It’s my left eye that is peeled. And behind that peeled eye Mercer begins to see the gargoyles at the back of her own vision, in her own mind’s eyes. In hospital day falls into night, falls into memory, falls into image, then so often pricks back to reality with the snap of a surgical glove, or the scratch of a sterilised needle. There are gargoyles everywhere, and the eye is always half-peeled.
However, Gargoyles is an undoubtedly life-affirming book. There are moments of sentimentality that, for me, briefly rupture the borderless worlds of time and memory created by Mercer, but there are also moments of joy and laughter in which the surreality of life lived on this border bring forward its intensity. Mercer writes that “a scar is a timeline”, and upon finishing Gargoyles I too thought about the ways in which my own emotional scars have made the love deeper, or the intensity higher. As Mercer ends, “I heard blood booming in my ears and gusts of my breath” — it was surreal, I was “hijacked by laughter”.