So Lucky is a tough, accomplished novel, a book that readers didn’t know they needed.
So Lucky by Nicola Griffith. FSG Originals, 180 pages, paperback, $15.
By Katharine Coldiron
Set aside the time you need to read So Lucky in one sitting, because whether you want to read it that way or not, that’s how it’ll happen. This book is a body-slam of empowerment, a roar of frustration so sustained and compelling that it cannot be ignored.
Among its assets, So Lucky is remarkably efficient. More major plot movement happens in the first eight pages than in many 300-page novels: its main character, Mara, is abandoned by her wife, falls into bed with her best friend, and is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Soon after, she loses her job as the head of a nonprofit organization benefiting people with AIDS. These losses, one after another, galvanize her to act, and act, and act. Despite her diagnosis, Mara hardly rests for most of the novel’s remaining pages, which cover a year of her life.
Through starting a nonprofit organization, wrangling with her doctor and her fast-progressing illness, and traveling to give speeches and attend conferences, Mara discovers how poorly suited the world is to people who are disabled and/or chronically ill. She rages righteously against everything that limits her, whether it’s the prejudice of others or the failure of her own limbs. There is more, though. A threat stalks the network of MS patients Mara has built through her nonprofit, and she cannot get the police or the FBI to take it seriously. Time ticks rapidly away, her first year of illness expiring fast. Every page is taut with the tension of how Mara will cope with the next moment’s challenges.
In this way and others, the book sets the reader squarely inside the experience of disability. The stress is unfathomable. The reader must suffer one painful disappointment after another with Mara, must live with her limitations, for the span of the novel. “Everything I ever wanted to do with my life involved using my body,” she confesses; she is a martial artist, a self-defense specialist, a kayaker, generally an active woman. Reshaping her life around her newly unreliable body proves difficult. On a trip to the airport, the what-ifs spin out endlessly—what if she can’t get a ride, what if her phone runs out of battery—and she is reminded of an early self-defense lesson.
After she addressed that, I asked, What if there are three of them? At which point she laughed and told me that she had no idea how to defend against a tank or a nuclear missile, either, and if I thought learning self-defense could ensure perfect safety, I should ask for my money back. There was no such thing.
There’s no such thing as a perfect day with a chronic illness, either, but there are strategies to cope. Some of them are laid out in this book. Mara’s singlemindedness, her determination, and her fury are strategies that get her through her first year with MS. But by the end of the novel, these strategies falter, and she must face up to what stalks her—not only a literal killer, but something more slippery and supernatural. Something she must embrace in order to defeat it.
This is a sleek and simple novel, with few characters, a specific journey, and no words wasted on unimportant details. The time and paperwork it takes to get certified as a nonprofit is elided to a few days and a handful of computer forms, for instance, and the sharp declines and remissions in Mara’s health coincide with her mood in novelistic rather than realistic ways. This does not matter one whit. The reading experience is a headlong dash through a profoundly compelling narrative, every sentence pulling the reader along faster and faster. It’s got an iron hand on the back of the reader’s neck, forcing her to look at what it posits.
As the taboo against them dissolves, it’s becoming a more common pleasure to read a book about an angry woman. Mara’s anger touches everything in the novel, and it threatens to smother some of her relationships. But it’s so understandable, so real. The way the built world does not suit a disabled person, and the way “normal” people treat disabled people, is noticed, shouted at able-bodied readers who have never thought about such things, at every opportunity. After her diagnosis, Mara feels separate from her surroundings in situations both genuine and existential.
Outside, the angle of the light was too low, picking out shadows from the mellow brick and root-heaved sidewalk that were all wrong, and the trees were bare. I could not shake the feeling that this was not my world.
Mara can only do a certain number of things before she gets too ill to continue. Several times throughout the book, she suffers a serious health setback and must start over. She cannot get her anger to subside in order to build a life, emotionally, with what she has.
But how can any reasonable person do this? The fact is, coping with disability is asking a human being to bear the unbearable, and So Lucky demonstrates this in a way anyone can comprehend. Griffith, the author of books in multiple genres (science fiction, thriller, historical fiction, and memoir), demonstrates that when a story is necessary, it sometimes emerges in a form difficult to categorize, but impossible to ignore. So Lucky is a tough, accomplished novel, a book that readers didn’t know they needed.
Katharine Coldiron‘s work has appeared in Ms., the Guardian, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.