'This Is Life'

Georgia Blain, The Museum of Words: a Memoir of Language, Writing and Mortality

Scribe, 176pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781911344544

reviewed by Gareth Carrol

Georgia Blain was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015. Just 13 months later, at the age of 51, she died. The foreword, written by Georgia’s partner, Andrew, lays out the bare facts of this. From the start there is no illusion that this is a tale with a happy ending, but Blain’s illness does more than just take her life. She has a tumour located in the left frontal lobe of her brain – an area that plays a vital role in how we produce language. The tumour, before it has even proved fatal, will steal what has defined her life: her capacity to write. Blain started writing The Museum of Words shortly after her diagnosis, and finished it three months before she died. Part biography, part illness memoir, the book allows Blain to hold on to language as long as she can.

As if her own situation wasn’t enough, at the same time, Anne, Georgia’s mother, is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Anne was a successful broadcaster and writer, so for her too, language was at the forefront of her life. The Museum of Words is as much Anne’s story as it is Blain’s. Anne’s dementia robs her not only of her memories, but also of the ability to organise and express her thoughts. At the time of Blain’s diagnosis, Anne was admitted to a nursing home, and part of what Blain and her family – Andrew and their 17-year-old daughter Odessa – go through, is the painful process of clearing out and selling Anne’s home. Her possessions, including a collection of well-worn passports paying testament to the rich life Anne has lived, form the backdrop to Blain’s recollections of her life and that of her mother.

Incredibly, Blain was already aware of the impact her condition would have on her ability to form language. As she explains, ‘I learnt all of this a month or so before my own tumour made itself undeniably evident with a total global seizure.’ We discover that Rosie Scott, Blain’s dear friend and mentor, is fighting a brain tumour in exactly the same location. She too is a writer, and thus faces the same fate in losing something so important to who she is. If this were a work of fiction, Blain muses, it would seem too far-fetched to be plausible. But it is not fiction, and the tragedy of Rosie’s condition is not just that Blain has to watch a dear friend suffer, but that she is given a glimpse into her own future, forced to wonder whether the decline she sees will foreshadow her own.

The love affair that all three women – four once we learn that Georgia’s daughter Odessa has inherited the same love of books and reading – have with language is profound. Blain describes her earliest experiences of learning to read at the age of four, subsequently devouring anything she could find, before quickly graduating to writing stories of her own. She talks of the rite of passage she endured as a young adult, struggling to get published despite numerous submissions to competitions, anthologies and journals, training to be a lawyer only to realise that she wanted to write above all else. Her writing career finally began to blossom at the same time as her friendship with Rosie. They met as part of a mentoring scheme, partly facilitated by Anne, but grew into lifelong friends, making the coincidence of both being struck down with the same condition so much crueller.

Juxtaposed with the stories of Blain’s life, and her growing relationship with writing and reading, is the trauma she suffers once her tumour is discovered – beginning with a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right with her words, to the complete loss of language for a short time following her first seizure (then again following an operation to remove her tumour), to the struggle she felt in trying to rebuild her language. Her description of her experience is evocative: the filing cabinets of her mind ‘scrambled’, nothing in the right place anymore. She could still cope, she says, but would never again have the consummate mastery of words that once came so naturally.

But if anything, this book belies that fear. It is clear that Blain is a writer; she is not just relating her experiences as a way of coping, but is a skilled, confident wordsmith who has honed herself through a lifetime of devoted practice. After her diagnosis, writing became an escape – a ‘lifeline’. As both a writer and, now, a sufferer, she is uniquely placed to articulate her experiences, and she does so compellingly. Alongside the stories of her life and her illness, Blain muses on various topics – ranging from Greek myths, to the nature of how language develops, to the structure of folk tales, and the rationale behind how drugs are named. All are fascinating vignettes, woven skilfully into the book. She points out the irony of her situation: being presented with an extraordinary plot to work with, but not one she wants to tell when she feels like she has so many more words left to write.

By the time that Andrew writes the foreword Blain and Anne have lost their battles, whilst Rosie is in palliative care. The final version of the book was completed by Andrew, along with Blain’s editor. At Andrew’s suggestion, it includes photos of Blain, Anne, Rosie and Odessa in happier times. Odessa is following in the illustrious footsteps of her mother and grandmother. Her love of language is obvious – probably inevitable – and we learn that she too has recently been published for the first time, something that thrilled Blain and Rosie.

Anne’s decline, Rosie’s condition, Blain’s fate, all are ultimately just examples of the terrible hands that life can deal. As Blain writes:

‘If there are gods, they are capricious and their motives unfathomable. This is life, as I frequently remind myself. This is life.’

This is one of the book's most striking features: there is no sense of anger. There is no raging indignation that Blain and those she loves are afflicted. There is just a heartbreakingly frank account of the impact that this has on Blain and her family. That she is able to produce such a book at all is testament not just to her craft, but to her determination and passion for writing. There is much to learn here, not least in one of the conclusions that Blain reaches six months into writing a weekly newspaper column about her illness. She declares that the only way to deal with mortality is not to live every day like it is our last, but to ignore it and live as if we will go on forever. The Museum of Words celebrates this: it is about Georgia’s life, not her impending death, and we learn much about a life in words well-lived.