Beauty in ugliness – a poem

I am an expert in not seeing –
my eyes can slide from face to belly
without registering what’s between –
smooth as the cool glass in the mirror –

they don’t stop

I am skilled in the fine art
of ignoring. I don’t see the thin line
where the blade bit me. I don’t see
the surgeon’s skill

there is no feeling

that line marks me, scrawled across my skin,
but under it there is the beauty
of scalpel, needle, years of training –
all those years of study given to me

by his steady hand

and my clean cells linking binding,
their interdigitation, their blind purpose,
has its own beauty. My skin weaving itself
my muscles cleaving to each other

in a blue womb.

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What am I?

There’s no word for what I am.

There are two main cancer narratives. The first is that you are diagnosed, you battle bravely, you defeat cancer, you are a survivor.

The second is that you are diagnosed, you battle bravely, you succomb – you are a victim.

What about us? The ones living with cancer? Cancer sits inside me, and it’s made itself comfortable in there. It’s got its feet up, it’s watching crap TV and drinking beer. It leaves its dirty cups on the coffee table, chocolate wrappers on the floor. I tidy up around it, but it doesn’t go. It sneers at me sometimes. So now, I don’t use that room very often. Maybe I choose to sit in a different place, to watch a different movie. Maybe I keep the door closed, ignore the death metal that crashes as I walk past, the sickly smell that seeps out once in a while…but from time to time, I open the door, and there it is, ugly and selfish and stinking, and not moving on.


I wanted a name for what I am. I’m not a survivor. I’m not a victim. I’m just living with this. I can’t call myself a “liver” though. That would be crazy, and confusing. I follow a blog called Riding the Pooka, where Iridacea uses cancer as a verb. I am cancering. You are cancering. We are cancering. I have cancered for years, now. That would make me a cancerer, which feels ugly and uncomfortable – and as if I do it actively. Maybe canceree would be better.

Cancerette? Too girly.

Cancerteer? Too swashbuckling.

Cancerella. Cancerina. Cancerista.

So, if you’ve found a useful word that describes a person in this state of living with – not dying of – let me know.

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Win a Bitter Orange Hamper

Sadly this is US only. I’ve just got my hands on Bitter Orange – I’ve loved her previous work.

Claire Fuller


Bitter Orange is published in the USA a week today (9th October). Tin House, my US publisher is running a competition for US readers to win a Bitter Orange hamper if you pre-order the book before publication day. And you can get a 30% discount off the full price if you order online through Powell’s Books, using the discount code ORANGE. Once you’ve pre-ordered, send your proof of purchase to to be entered into the competition.

The book is already out in the UK and Germany, and you can read what reviewers have been saying.

In the US it’s been appearing on lots of round up lists of what to read in October, including:

  • Time Magazine: “Unsettling and eerie, Bitter Orange is an ideal October chiller.”
  • Entertainment Weekly: “Fuller (Swimming Lessons) weaves between two timelines in this story of a love triangle hurtling toward…

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Yesterday I decided to go for a little wander. Just 20 minutes or so, round a town I know reasonably well, though I’m still discovering little nooks and crannies.

I took a spiralling path up Castle Hill, which sits in a little park. I’ve never been to the top before. It’s not very high, but I got a view over some rooftops, and down into a space I didn’t know existed. It was damp and cloudy yesterday, but I imagine over the summer it would have been full of young people chilling and feeling private. The thing with being up high is that you can see without being seen. I could look down on people lunching in the park, and a party of wheelchair users crossing on the diagonal path.

There are two benches up there, both graffitti-ed, but with much more positive slogans than I was expecting, both so neatly lettered I initally thought they might have been officially carved there:

Peace and love prevail ∞

Be excellent to each other

I spiralled back down, crossed the park – past a tiny castle shaped folly – maybe an old gatehouse, but for what? – and down a road I never walk down, always drive down. There’s an old railway station, a cafe with a sublime statue of Queen Anne on top, and glimpses of the river. I turned left, through a very narrow alleyway, with black painted walls, that cut through to the High Street, and strolled through the market. That’s where you buy those things you don’t find in proper shops- fleecies with pictures of wolves on them, khaki waterproofs, plastic handbags. It’s like a walk-through Ebay.

I finished up in the library – always a challenge. They always have the second book in the series. Where’s the first? Can’t always be out on loan. Lots of books with cupcakes on the front. I have a strategy – I do a quick scan for a couple of authors whose names I can remember, and then pull out a couple of random choices, based entirely on the cover. So shallow.

As part of my dealing with cancer thing I have officially extended my lunch break from 30 minutes to an hour, and I plan to spend at least 20 minutes out of the office. This was my first attempt. I’m going to try and record something beautiful, or quirky, or just a little attention-grabbing each time.

I’ve told my parents and my kids that we have moved on a notch, and they have all managed the news as well as can be expected – though my son accused me of being too “jaunty” about it. An interesting choice of words, but I know what he means, and he’s probably right. It’s all so vague – everything changes, nothing changes, we adapt to the “new normal”. I’m waiting for a bone scan now. I was describing that to my friend the hairdresser, and the young (younger than me) woman next to us chimed in and described her bone scan. Jaunty, she was – and bizarre that we should be chatting about these things in a hairdresser’s, over coffee. I never asked her why she had hers done, and we remained jaunty throughout.

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Joyful – Ingrid Fetell Lee – review

I’ve read a lot of books about positive thinking. I live with cancer, and it’s one of the things you are supposed to do: be positive. I don’t know how many people have told me that. It’s a present day mantra. I’ve read a lot about happiness, and I’ve read my share of self help books. In fact, my husband has been known to ask me why I’m not perfect yet…

Anyhow, this isn’t really one of those books. It’s much better than that. It’s about joy – that fizzing, bubbling, golden feeling that we get from time to time. It’s about what makes us feel joyful, the science behind it, and how to create more moments of joy – but not by changing your inner self, by changing your environment.

It was one of those books that beautifully combines the feeling of “oh, yes, I recognise that…” with “aha! that’s why!”. I found it immensely satisfying. And inspiring. Somehow, I’ve never grasped the idea that I should be actively making my world joyful, and that it doesn’t take much.

This sounds really pathetic, but I’ve already had one great “joy” experience from reading this book. I bought a skirt. It’s bright blue and white stripes, with a biggish bow at the waist. It looks like it could have been designed by Helen Dryden. I loved it in the shop, but when I got it home, decided it was “too theatrical”. Thanks to Ingrid, I wore it to work. I had so many comments on it, and since then every time I’ve worn it, somebody has told me how much they like it. And each time, I’ve had a little boost, and they’ve had a little burst of pleasure (I presume) – and between us we’ve made the world a happier place.

So, yes, I loved this book, and I’m going to be buying copies for friends, and I’m going to look for joy, and create it, too.

Thank you to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this book. It’s ironic that I scheduled this before I posted yesterday, but maybe that kind of bad news makes stuff like this even more important.
Image result for helen dryden

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Bad. Just bad.

It’s bad. I’m in a funny kind of limbo waiting to hear exactly how bad, but it’s bad. The disease has progressed in my lungs, and there’s some evidence of bony changes. What I don’t know is whether there’s anything to be done about it.

I got the letter last night, with an appointment for Tuesday. I haven’t told anyone yet, except my husband (of course – he gets to suffer, too), and work – because there are practicalities there. Work, of course, are lovely, and I’ve been bought coffees, and hugged, and sent home, and taken care of.

The bit I’m dreading is telling my parents, and telling my kids.

The kids, then. It’s the start of a brand new term, and a brand new college for my daughter. It was my son’s first day back today. I didn’t tell them anything last night, but sometime between now and Tuesday I’m going to have to tell them something. The problem is the uncertainty. And the fact that I am supposed to take care of them, and this is something that I can’t make better for them.

My parents are old. They are both in their 80s. They worry. Actually, they may be tougher than I give them credit for, but I hate telling them things like this. I start imaging what it would be like if it was my child who had this crap happening to them, and I get overwhelmed by that.

Thank God for DBT. I used to think that you had a duty to explore these negative emotions, really get down to the bottom of them. I now realise that distraction is a perfectly valid coping technique, and I’m planning to use a lot of it over the next few days. I don’t want to hope, and I don’t want to fear. I want to keep my expectations balanced and neutral, and just manage the uncertainty.

I really want to be in Italy, in a perfect little square, eating a perfect dish of pasta and drinking a glass of chilled white wine.

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The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls by [Barker, Pat]Pat Barker takes us to the end days of the Trojan war, with a re-telling from the point of view of the women there. This is the story of Briseis, and through her, all the women caught up in wars – women with limited power, women with no control over their fates.

Barker tells a story of complex relationships. Briseis is pragmatic, angry but accepting. She goes from being a princess to being a slave to the greatest warrior of them all.. The social hierarchy is overturned, for all the women involved.

The heroes in this book are real people. There’s an air of the WWI officer’s mess in places – Achilles as the doomed fighter pilot? – there are negotiations and arguments. The pressure of the endless war, the endless siege – which keeps the besieging as imprisoned as the besieged- leads to personal feuds getting way out of control. This doesn’t feel anachronistic at all – for me, it showed the universal nature of war. The hospital tent is how I imagine any hospital tent could be – pre-antibiotics, at any rate – conjuring up Vera Brittain and Hawkeye Pierce would both have felt at home there.

Through it all, the women watch, hang on in there, tolerate, survive. They talk among themselves, they share secrets, they develop complex relationships with their captors. They have children. They pass on their own songs and stories to their foreign offspring.

I read this book in an olive grove in Croatia, reminded that there was a war there not so very long ago, when rape was deliberately used as a weapon. Maybe myths survive because they are universal?

I thought I knew my Greek myths pretty well, and it was shaming to think that I knew this story, but had never really thought about it from a female perspective. This fits well in the tradition of re-tellings from a different perspective – and Barker brings her knowledge of conditions in WWI to bear here extremely successfully. I’m so glad I read this book.

I read this book through NetGalley, so thank you to them.

Reviews Published

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