When I read the synopsis for Laura Freeman’s book, I must admit I was intrigued. The idea that literature, reading and a love of books could help someone recover from anorexia fascinated me. As a person who enjoys food and loves to read about depictions of eating, mealtimes, and food in general I was eager to see how my simple, almost casual enjoyment of such details could be compared to being a catalyst for someone to change their lives.
In her early teens whilst struggling with life at secondary school, Laura Freemen first exhibited signs of the anorexia that was to later take a hold on her life. Making her teenage years unbearable, isolated and anxiety ridden. What initially started out as a decision to not visit the tuck shop like the other girls, not eating lunch, not drinking tea or milk, gradually cutting out things from and paring back her diet until she was existing on very little. Laura’s mother took her starving daughter to their GP and a diagnosis of anorexia was made. What followed was, long periods of bed rest, isolation and a slow and painstaking journey towards recovery.
Anorexia. It is a difficult word. It does not come easily. Anorexia Nervosa. You cannot mumble it under your breath and hope no one has heard. I do not like the length or the unfamiliarity of the word, nor it’s harsh X, like a pair of crossed femur bones. You think of x-rays and skeletons.
Even though Laura, with the support of her family and friends was able to eat again, she was eating to merely exist. Her mother told her she must eat enough ‘to keep body and soul together’. This is what she did for many years until her voracious love of reading eventually sparked her appetite and her determination to live a healthier life and strive to get better.
From the descriptions of food and mealtimes in the classics of Dickens, through the war poets, travel writers and food writers and the diaries and letters of Virginia Woolfe Laura found inspiration to try new foods. Foods she had an innate fear of. Fear of what they would do to her mind and body. Bolstered up by the fictional characters enjoyment of food and their almost casual pleasure of eating, Laura wonders whether she can be more like them.
I did not – yet – have any great desire to eat a whole ‘haystack of buttered toast’, such as the one prepared by the Aged Parent in Great Expectations, nor Mr Crummles’s hot beef-steak pudding and potatoes. But I liked the thought of them, and took vicarious pleasure in others’ enjoyment of fried sole, shrimp sauce, watercress and young radishes.
That was all I wanted for the time being, to taste, to sample, to dip just a tea-spoon in the milk pot of Dickens’s meals.
Bit by bit she overcomes some of her eating demons which is such a long and painful process. Not something that happens overnight but a slow and gruelling recovery beset by relapses and pitfalls. A painful recovery for not only Laura but her family and friends who have to watch her struggle.
Laura’s writing is searingly honest. The book doesn’t dwell too much on the details of Laura’s illness, as Laura herself mentions at the start of the book that there are plenty of books out there documenting the actual illness. Whilst this book is heartbreaking and highly emotive there is a thread of absolute determination and bravery running right through it’s heart.
Its a tough read at times and at one point I found myself putting the book down and absorbing what I had just read, I had such a sudden swell of emotion. These feelings I felt most keenly when Laura describes the love, care and support of her mother, who sounds like such a strong woman. The things she did for Laura in the hope of making her life better, helping her through the tough times and ultimately seeing her live a good, healthy, happy life. When Laura describes a photograph she sent to her mother of her eating a single scoop of gelato on a trip abroad, which her mother now has framed at home, my heart nearly broke.
In Mantua, in the sun, it was possible. It would have to substitute for both lunch and dinner and I wasn’t sure I could ever manage it again, but I had my gelato in the sunshine with a photograph to prove it. From an Internet cafe I sent the picture home. It is framed on Mum’s desk.
Laura freely admits that even now she struggles with food, and the voice of the ‘Jabberwock’ in her head. But she holds dear the likes of Dickens, Sassoon, Virginia Woolfe and credits them in her recovery. Were it not for them and her huge appetite for reading she would perhaps not have felt brave enough to try those boiled eggs, milky tea, yorkshire puddings, saffron buns and icecream in the sunshine.
It is interestingly not just the descriptions of actual food that helped Laura’s recovery, but the emotions, feelings and celebration behind the act of eating. Getting together with family and friends and simply enjoying the food and the company. Be that in rich and lavish situations and surroundings, or pared back settings where the food isn’t the focus, just the experience of eating it.
There are vast numbers of literary references in this book, not all of which I had knowledge of but this did not detract from my reading experience. If anything it made me curious about these literary work.
This book was a very enjoyable read and it feels almost wrong to phrase it that way. I found it fascinating, heart warming, unerringly real and raw.
I am so glad that the award meant that this book came into my reading life.
See you soon.
Bookish Chat xxx