Love Like Salt, by Helen Stevenson

It would be nice to think, in life, that you could be judged a little by the quality of the people who love you.


 On the day I finished this book, I tweeted about it: “#LoveLikeSalt is just. Oh. I mean. Pergolesi and Marot and France and chronic illness. It’s like it was written specifically for me.” I don’t often, if ever, feel that I’ve captured the essence of what a book means to me in my tweets, but there is always a first time, and that time is now. If I could walk away without writing a review of it, I would, and would point to that tweet as evidence that I have in fact fulfilled my brief, for what more can I say? Music that I know and love, a poet the translation of whose work is meaningful to both me and Stevenson, a country we have built our own fantastical versions of, the burden of ill health: it is all there, it is all expressed generously and artfully, and she broadens my perspective by writing not as a sufferer of chronic illness, but as the mother of a child who is. Reading it brought me closer to my own mother; what also helped in this regard was the interweaving of the story of Stevenson’s mother’s dementia and eventual death. It’s about generation and heredity, for sure, but it’s also about community, solidarity, belonging, and the sense of betrayal when a community you thought had accepted you demonstrates that, really, they don’t.

Stevenson’s first daughter, Clara, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was eight months old. They were still living in London then, and her care was delivered by doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital. In these opening pages, you get the sense of Stevenson’s constantly-connecting brain, her need to create allusion and recognise resonance. She’s aware of how incongruous, and how funny, this can seem: a doctor’s faintly patronising reference to his own jargon reminds her of her brother’s driving instructor. Most of the time, though, the chain of coincidence that she follows is simply breathtaking. She starts playing the piano again after the diagnosis and teaches herself a Chopin ballade, mostly because it’s hard and provides “physical release, like throwing yourself around in a padded cell, bouncing off walls.” Later, she discovers that Chopin may have died of cystic fibrosis, instead of TB—no one really knows for sure. A geneticist, she learns, in America, has invented a way of transcribing protein sequences as clusters of notes: as music. When this geneticist back-translates a Chopin nocturne into DNA sequencing, he produces a genetic pattern with a striking similarity to the protein sequence that produces CF. It’s hardly a smoking gun; it doesn’t mean anything, or prove anything, and Stevenson knows that. “But”, she writes, nonetheless, “I was glad to discover, at least, that Clara was a member of a set that may have included Chopin.” She is both a rationalist and a woman of faith; she proves in her writing what many of us know instinctively, that the two are not mutually exclusive, especially if you allow yourself not to be shackled by preconceived ideas of what “faith” involves.

What elevates the book from a dreary recounting of helplessness in the face of a child’s distress is that sort of connectivity, and Stevenson does it again, most poignantly, with her mother. Just after Clara is born, her mother begins to succumb to dementia. She eventually dies when Stevenson and her young family have already moved to France. The movement of life from an old woman to a baby, the movement of illness from an infant’s lungs to a grandmother’s brain, forms the concrete core of one of Stevenson’s major preoccupations, the mise-en-abime. It’s French for “placed in the abyss”; it’s the technical term for that artistic strategy that featurs the work of art inside itself, inside which, of course, there is another, tinier replica of the work of art featuring a fourth, even more miniscule version, and so on, into invisible infinity. She links this idea to heredity, without ever explicitly saying so:

Perhaps it is this duality that appeals, tempting us with the idea that we might be both author and character, monarch and subject, lover and beloved, creator and created, the red side of the apple and the green. In a way it is an anarchic gesture…At the same time, though, the infinite replication and recursion hooks us and pulls the thread all the way back to Genesis, or Plato, to the idea of some ideal of which everything else is only an image. ‘I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know,’ my Scottish grandmother used to say to me in my uppity teens.

If you can be both parts of a thing, perhaps you can be begetter and begotten. Perhaps you can be your own progenitor, your own parent. Or perhaps, Stevenson elegantly omits to say, that’s a dangerous illusion, shattered instantly when you consider the happenstance that brought you together with another person, each of you with your own set of inherited protein sequences from every single one of your ancestors, carrying half of the fatal combination that would make your daughter what she is.

Perhaps the best writing in the book, though, is the dozen or so pages devoted to an analysis of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which Stevenson and two friends in France perform just after her mother’s death. It’s a set of twelve movements, for two female voices, taking about forty minutes to perform. The music is early eighteenth century, but the text is earlier, fourteenth century; it’s a description of Mary’s experience as she watches Christ, her unexpected miraculous baby, suffering an ignominious, agonizing death. You do not need to have a religious faith, or even a particularly spiritual sensibility, to be moved by it. It is art about an experience that is as human as they come. I’ve sung it before—during a Good Friday Stations of the Cross procession in Oxford—and listened to it perhaps a hundred times. I know this music.* And Stevenson gets it.

Each voice is entirely separate, as though the conceit is that neither could hear the other, and yet they blend so beautifully, in their isolation, each illuminating the other. It is a work about grief, female grief, the collective experience of aloneness, and most particularly the grief of a mother.

…Those two words captivated me: ‘stabat mater.’ It ran through our lives for three months, and our children’s lives. ‘Where’s Mama?’ ‘Doing the Stabat Mater‘, as though it were a dance, like the hokey cokey or a jive. Sometimes I feel I’m still doing it, that thing mothers do, standing in this moment, with all the strength it sometimes takes just to stand, and no more, not to speak, or wail, or even comfort, but just stand.

I have a strange but unshakeable feeling that that is what it’s like, at its deepest and bloodiest, to be a parent: just stand. It is fundamental and frightening and untouchable.

Clara is bullied at her school in France—not initially, when they move there, but as she gets older, and distinctions between children start to become more obvious, and to matter more. Stevenson and her husband fight for their kid, of course, as you would. It’s not clear whether the poisonous village environment is down to it being France, where they seem to have a pretty harsh general attitude to disability, or it being a rural, insular community, where things can turn nasty fast. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. In any case, they move back to England, which is definitely the right thing for Clara and her education, but that sense of betrayal—that their friends couldn’t stand up for them, that France itself, a country they’ve always seen as a bit of a fairyland, has failed them—sticks. I never did get bullied that badly (well, not for being a diabetic, anyway; most of my bullies stuck with “you’re a fat nerdy bitch”, which was certainly sufficient ammunition). But that sense of being let down…that is the wallpaper of chronic illness. It’s not just your body that fails you, although that is bad enough. Every time someone squeals and hides their face when I take my syringes out, I feel like sticking them with it.

Thank you so very much to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. Love Like Salt is published in the UK on 3 March.

*Here is my favourite Stabat Mater recording: the countertenor is Philippe Jaroussky, the soprano is Julia Lezhneva. The whole disc doesn’t seem to be on YouTube, but it is on Spotify, and I recommend it unreservedly. You really need to listen to the whole thing.



16 thoughts on “Love Like Salt, by Helen Stevenson

    • I think that quote illustrates one of her major strengths – being thoughtful and even academic without needing footnotes. The combination is very appealing (/sellable, so I expect Virago’s hoping for good things with this one.)

  1. This sounds like it has so many elements to it that I would like. So glad you felt such a connection to it – that’s a great feeling, isn’t it?
    You should stick them! My brother is diabetic, and before he was comfortable enough with it, it was my mother and I who would give him his needles. No one else wanted to do it, but I looked at it as my first foray into medicine (that didn’t happen).

    • Oh, my goodness, yes—I remember my mother giving me injections when I was quite small, and then as I got bigger, I’d have to sort of sit across her lap in order for her to be able to reach the fleshy bit of my leg. My best friend’s mother learned how to do the injections, as well (I wasn’t brave enough to do it until I was ten). It was, without a doubt, the most astonishingly generous thing any non-family member has ever done for me; without it, I’d never have been able to have sleepovers at her house. I was very lucky.

      • Sleepovers! I don’t know what my brother did about those, but I’m going to guess that he didn’t go to many anyway.
        It *was* generous of them – it can be nerve-racking if you’re not used to it!

  2. Helen says:

    Thank you for your completely beautiful piece. I couldn’t have hoped for a more perceptive and uplifting account of Love Like Salt. I feel like it was written for you too! Helen xxxx

  3. A gorgeous review, and the book sounds riveting. And this line: “I have a strange but unshakeable feeling that that is what it’s like, at its deepest and bloodiest, to be a parent: just stand. It is fundamental and frightening and untouchable”—yes, that’s what it’s like. I’ve seen it in my own parents (I have a chronic illness too) and I fear that standing when it comes to my own son. Because it always comes, one way or another, if parents love their children.

    • It’s what scares me most about being a parent (actually that’s not quite true, but it’ll do for now), but I also have an odd feeling that as long as you can do that—carry on existing for your children—you’re doing what you need to be doing, and that’s as simple as can be.

    • See, I’m not sure it’s really a memoir in the way that we think of one. I think it’s a meditation, or a long essay. Bit like Rebecca Solnit (though I prefer Stevenson’s style) or even Olivia Laing (though more overtly personal.) I can completely see why Virago is calling it a memoir, but there are bits of it that stick out of that category, for sure.

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