John Cromer is introduced to us as a 20-year-old who is learning to drive his first car, a red Mini, in 1968. That means he was born in 1948, also my birth year, and I well remember the attraction of the original mini, so Mars-Jones had me intrigued from the start. It is a deliberately misleading beginning, however. The present is quickly dispensed with, as the author retreats into memory, introducing Mum and Dad (and their quirky obsessions) and the child John’s fascination with bodily functions (which will continue throughout the book):
I have a separate memory of sitting in a shaft of sunlight and realising that everything around me happened by my say-so. Everything was conditional on me. Logically, of course, this is a memory of successful potty-training. The potty has been pushed out of the picture, but I know it’s there. I’m a little king, and I’m sitting on a foreshortened throne. My gross happiness is the immediate radiant aftermath of being told I was Mummy’s clever boy for doing my siss or my ‘tuppenny’ (the family word for defacation) so beautifully in the right place. That’s something that disappeared early on — excretion as one of the pleasures of life, expressive as a smile, not some dark duty that dominates the days.
That quote is chosen deliberately, and not just because it is an excellent sample of the straight-forward narrative style that will continue throughout the book. We learn that John is highly self-centred, with a critical bent, and rabidly introspective. He is also fascinated by idiom and private language (siss and tuppenny). And the presence of authority in the most basic aspects of growing up (potty-training) will be a constant theme of the book.
We find out the whys of all that just a few pages later when John is only three:
My life began with a fever. The pain came only at night, to start with. Starting in the knee. Hot and dizzy. At two in the morning I’d be screaming, then by breakfast-time I would almost have forgotten. All childhood illnesses are dramatic, but this was more dramatic than most. I would scream for quite a while without stopping, and I couldn’t bear for my knee to be touched. Mum gave me aspirin, so many that once I saw two Mums coming into the room.
All of that happens by page 20 and if you have an ingrained aversion to spoilers stop reading this review now. On the other hand, if you want to know whether investing 525 pages worth of reading time is worthwhile, accept the “plot” giveaways that follow as forewarning. While the opening section tells us that John is mobile enough to drive at the age of 20, the rest of this volume takes him only to age 15 or 16 — and he is all but immobile (crippled was the term of the day) and institutionalized for the remainder of the novel.
The doctors have trouble diagnosing his disorder. The first diagnosis (rheumatic fever), which prescribes motionless bedrest at home, turns out to be wrong — in fact, the prescription is the worst possible, resulting in the permanent fusing of his hips, knees, elbows and wrists.
If you’re a patient who isn’t positively going to die, so that sooner or later your condition is likely to improve, then the chances are you’ll be on the receiving end of whatever treatment is currently the fashion. In the seventeenth century I would have been bled. In the 1950s the prevailing wisdom required no special equipment. I was simply put to bed. Bed with no supper was a punishment. Until you say you’re sorry. Bed rest till you’re better was doctor’s orders, however long it took.
John’s body may be crippled and the prisoner of prescription from mistaken authority, but his mind is just fine. Mars-Jones spends some time examining the “learning” of a child confined to bed at home, before a new “diagnosis” currently in fashion sends John off into a different world. Now it is said he has Still’s Disease:
Rheumatic fever and Still’s Disease weren’t as different as chalk and cheese. They differed as one cheese differs from another. In one way they were much of a muchness: there was no cure for Still’s Disease, any more than there was for rheumatic fever, so Mum and the doctors hadn’t missed out on some magic potion to make me better. One day (the day Mum said good-bye to her wisdom teeth) she had woken up the mother of a pain-ridden, immobile child, and she had gone to bed that night the mother of someone very similar. Eventually both diseases die down in their chronic forms, leaving different types of devastation.
With the new diagnosis, John is sent to the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital, located at the Cliveden estate. The Astors had offered it to the Canadians as a hospital in both World Wars, now in the post-war era it is a nursing school and rheumatology unit (that is historically accurate). It is part hospital and part school for the patients (much more of the former than the latter). Without giving too much away, John will spend the rest of his childhood years here before moving on as a budding adolescent to another insitution for the disabled, more school than hospital (although he notes that both have powerful Matrons, which seems to make both more hospital than school in his eyes).
I am well into this review and am quite aware that I have provided potential readers with a knapsack full of reasons not to read this book. 525 pages featuring an immobile child as the central character? Who is self-centred in an often annoying way? And pre-occupied with bodily functions? And always at the whim of authorities with questionable ability? Why would I want to read this?
Let me offer two reasons.
One is that Mars-Jones has deliberately restricted his setting and action to allow for an ongoing series of character sketches of the people who have power in John’s tightly-restrained life — fellow patients, nurses, physiotherapists, doctors, teachers, even relatives (Granny in particular is a wonderful study) whom we experience and study as John does. None are central to the book, but all are significant and the author has both great fun and great insight in developing them. The fact that the cast changes frequently is part of the charm; collectively they represent a good portrait of the era.
Mars-Jones also uses those restrictions to create the forum for playing with language and its implications, a continuing aspect of the book that is not related to the plot at all. Here’s John contemplating the name of his first home-away-from home:
There was a doubleness, too, about the name of the estate, or at least its pronounciation. There were two versions racked with class nuance, both of them at odds with the spelling. Mum said only suburban people said ‘Cleeve-den’. Upper people always said ‘Clivv-den’ (just as Mum always said ‘upper people’). The only thing both parties would have agreed on was that the name wasn’t pronounced ‘Cliveden’, the way it was written, and they would have joined in laughing at anyone who knew no better.
Those tangential excursions into the contemplation of the vagaries of language (often involving “class” as it appeared — or sounded — in the 1950s) pop up every few pages and for anyone who appreciates the notion of the sub-texts that lie behind everyday language they are more than a diversion, they are an important aspect of the novel.
So, will I read Cedilla? Pilcrow was not an easy read and had to be set aside every 50 pages or so. But, yes, I will take on volume two — and am rather looking forward to finding out how Mars-Jones will use a mobile John (I warned you about the way the author plays with both language and body functions) to offer up other insights. I’m rather hoping that, like John Updike in the Rabbit Run books, he will look at the latter half of the twentieth century, decade by decade — he has done the 1950s rather well. He does of course make his fascination with language apparent with his titles, so I expect that to continue. If you don’t know, a pilcrow is the paragraph mark (¶) and cedilla is an accent (ç). John is fascinated by the grapheme Æ and umlaut, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see either or both show up as a title for volume three or four. And who knows what else: grave, acute, ampersand? As you can see, Mars-Jones did get me hooked with his playing with language and its more obscure tools.