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The Booker Prize 2022 # 10: Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer

Lia’s carefully calibrated life is about to be turned upside down yet again. The cancer she battled years ago is back. And spreading. Surrounded by family - her husband Harry, solid and kind, her daughter Iris, sensitive yet strong, and even her estranged mother, who struggles to connect the medical talk with her religious beliefs - gather around her as she faces another round of treatments. Through flashbacks we learn more about the origins of Lia’s difficult relationship to her body and her family and we are introduced to Matthew, her destructive first love. But Lia is not the only narrator of this special novel, we hear a second voice, one from within her cells – the spreading cancer remembers the years it has spent growing and fighting within her.

Maddie Mortimer takes her ambitious themes not only into the text but also onto the page in new and unusual ways. Her story is told visually, as well as verbally, she plays with the medium of the book – page, ink and font. Combined with the unique narrator, her visualisation of meanings has an astonishing effect and helps the reader sink into the hopes and fears discussed in this book. Mortimer’s inventiveness and playful, joyous experimentation keep the novel light where the topic is so heavy – until the last chapter, which had me shed a tear. It took me a moment to get fully into her rhythm, to figure out her tone and her characters but once I did I was hooked and did not want to put this book down (and it’s a chunky hardcover). What is most astonishing about this debut is its deep understanding and raw engagement with everything that involves our bodies, spectacular or not. Descriptions of what the disease does to Lia physically, how tumour and drug fight within her, sex, fear, accidents, a daughter’s hug at the right time – all these become so intensely real on Mortimer’s page. Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is also funny despite being gut-wrenchingly sad. A passionate love letter to life, to bodies, and to those who keep us grounded through whatever life throws at us – Maddie Mortimer has written stunning debut.

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