In this day and age, with independent bookshops and small publishers closing in swathes, it’s a joy to hear of a newly-founded enterprise: Fairlight Books in Oxford. At one year old, they’re just about to release a series of five novellas in their Fairlight Moderns series and I was delighted to have a sneak peek. I decided to start with Inside the Bone Box, because it focused on a doctor and that appealed in the wake of Adam Kay’s diaries. It’s the story of consultant neurosurgeon Nicholas Anderton, whose burgeoning obesity has already threatened his marriage and now raises very serious questions about his professional capabilities. Meanwhile his wife, Alyson, has her own demons to fight. It soon becomes clear that the ‘bone box’ of the title isn’t just the skull, within which the brain-self resides, but also the prisons we build for ourselves, trapping ourselves within excess flesh or addictions.
The story is about surgery, of course, and there are several intriguing accounts of operations on the brain, which fascinated me because it’s something I know nothing about and neuroscience still has an almost mystical quality for me. Ferner has done a phenomenal amount of research into brain surgery and writes with an authority which completely convinced me, as a layman. Yet there’s another kind of surgery in the novella as well: the diagnosis and (premature) autopsy of Nick’s and Alyson’s marriage: its current failings arising from the issues of the past, and the petty spite of a union dragged through the wringer by infidelity, trauma and growing indifference. It’s a story about how we present ourselves to others, and the grief that arises when there’s too great a gulf between others’ understanding of ourselves and what we feel to be our true natures.
Neither Nick nor Alyson are particularly pleasant people. They have both done terrible things, to themselves and to others, and yet they feel gut-wrenchingly believable. You feel that you might well know couples like this: two deeply mismatched people, who are nevertheless trapped by the bond of long cohabitation. They’ve both allowed stress or unhappiness to goad them into unhealthy behaviours: now Nick finds that everyday tasks grow harder as his girth expands, layering tiers of fat around his body which make it hard for him to see certain parts of his anatomy, let alone use them. Alyson has come to rely on alcohol, which gives her the sense of gaining control over her brittle, unhappy emotions while also undoing her physical self-control. Neither of them are healthy; but dare they admit it? Dare they combat it? If they tried to change, how would this affect their identity? What would existence be without the pleasures of good food or good wine, which make up for the dismal lack of joy elsewhere in their lives – never mind that their pleasures might be slowly be killing them along the way?
The novella alternates chapters between Nick’s and Alyson’s perspectives: I thought it interesting that Nick’s are given fragmentary titles excised from the text of the chapters, while Alyson’s are only ever titled with her name. We see Nick out in the world: at foreign conferences; at work in the hospital; dining expansively in a favourite restaurant. But we also only ever see Alyson at home, trapped within the confines of the walls, aggressively nursing her habitual glass of wine. I don’t know to what degree this was deliberate, but it gives extra force to Alyson’s sense of being belittled, ignored and overlooked, even though we’re told that she has a (presumably demanding) job as a solicitor. It also emphasises the claustrophobia of her chapters, a tight and tensely-wound anxiety, which goes well with her nervous alcoholism.
I really enjoyed Ferner’s flair as a writer. He can give you a strong picture of a character in just a sentence or two of elegant prose, and combines precision with just the right amount of ornamentation. Predicated on questions of identity and the loss thereof – through brain damage, perhaps, or the renunciation of a quality that we feel defines us – it’s a little book that packs a punch far greater than its size.
I can’t wait to dive into the rest of Fairlight’s new releases, so watch this space…
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review