‘Shortly after my forty-fourth birthday, I was stopped in my tracks running in New York’s Central Park.’
I picked up this book, thinking I was about to read a memoir of life with multiple sclerosis. I picked up this book, knowing that it had been shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2020. I was curious.
While this book does touch on Ms Llewellyn’s diagnosis of and life with multiple sclerosis, much of it is about her childhood. It is also the story of her father, Richard, who contracted polio as a twenty-year-old. Richard Llewellyn contacted polio towards the end of the polio epidemic in the 1950s, was confined to an iron lung for some time and then to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Richard Llewellyn’s determination provides a focus for Caro as she struggles to come to terms with her diagnosis and what it means.
But there is another dimension to this memoir. There is the story of how her parents met (her mother nursed Richard in hospital) married, had children, and later separated. Physical limitations and mental illness both play a part. Caro’s own illness takes her back through those memories:
‘His great lesson was to teach me that we’re free as we allow our minds to be. Imagination can save your life if you need it to. ‘
Memory can be a strange thing. Interpreting our lived experience as children through our memories as adults can add a dimension of acceptance and understanding. It can also be confronting: seeing some of the traits of our parents in ourselves.
When I picked up this book, I was expecting something quite different. But Caro’s description of her father’s experiences took me back into my own family history. My father also had polio, and while he was not as severely affected as Richard Llewellyn, he fought hard to be able to walk again and never retained his early adult muscle tone. I remember listening to my grandmother’s descriptions of the physical therapy he underwent to walk, and how very brave he was.
And so it is that a memoir written by one person can be a jumping off point for memories of life for another. Multiple sclerosis is another disease which varies in its impact. I hope that Caro Llewellyn continues to find the courage she needs for her own journey. As her father did.