Memoir offers an intimate portrait of a woman’s journey through skin cancer


Kate Kennedy’s “Skin” is a thin book, but its impact is anything but. Its subject matter is focused and its actions unfold over a relatively concise period of time. And yet it resonates in powerful and unexpected ways. From Kennedy’s choice of words to the distinctive portraits of the people she met during a time of crisis in her life, there is not a word lost – and the results make it intimate, visceral and non-fiction work. moving.

Cover courtesy of Littoral Books

At the heart of the book is the Maine writer’s treatment for skin cancer, starting with her doctor’s discovery of her face and working your way through her treatment, with many ups and downs going on. of road. Through her use of precise language, Kennedy gives the reader a memorable idea of ​​the qualities of different aspects of her experience, from the mask she wears during her treatment to the mark on her skin that first sparked medical attention. : “A white treat, the size and texture of a freshwater pearl, had appeared in the crown of sun damage. It certainly seems trivial, based on this description; for Kennedy, that will be it. except.

Shortly thereafter, Kennedy hints at another feeling of discomfort. “The area between my cheekbone and left ear was enameled, a bit redder and more itchy than the surrounding skin,” she writes. “However, barely noticeable.” But soon, the area she describes will turn out to be a sign of a more disturbing diagnosis. And as the book progresses, Kennedy and his doctors are exploring surgery on his face – first to remove the most visible aspect of the cancer’s presence, and then to further tackle its spread to his face. play.

The options make Kennedy think about her own face, the possible loss of expression that could come from skin grafts or radiation therapy, and her family’s history of cancer. As her treatments become regular, she offers memorable portraits of the other patients she meets. Here, too, Kennedy uses her penchant for linguistic precision to a memorable effect, including a brief foray into the absurd, when she reflects on another patient’s face mask.

“As I approached the sofa by the fireplace, I asked the man if he had any plans for his mask,” she wrote. “I imagined him transformed into a Chia pet dotted with green shoots instead of hairs, or perhaps hanging upside down on hooks, with tomato plants hanging from the ground. But these images, instead of cheering me up, hurt me deeply.

Kennedy skillfully juxtaposes her own medical issues with her husband Nate’s struggles during the same period. He, too, struggles with health issues – not as serious as a cancer diagnosis, but frustrating in their elusiveness. An important subplot in “Skin” finds him preparing for a garden tour and working to grow some plants around their house and prune others. This is not quite a direct parallel with Kennedy’s experience with cancer treatment; instead, it’s more like a rhyming experience or an echo of it, putting the two in a larger context.

Kennedy has spent half a decade leading the Southern Maine Writing Project at the University of Southern Maine, and his mastery of language and tone makes it a memorable read. However, his use of language also works on a deeper level. For much of the book, Kennedy’s doctors are faced with one of the challenges of treating cancer: the fact that there is no clear way to know when the cancer has been successfully excised from the body, or that he definitely won’t come back. The precision of its language contrasts sharply with that – in essence, it can achieve a level of specificity that medical science cannot.

In this way, then, Kennedy’s precision in writing this short memoir can be seen as some sort of defiant act – or at least an intentional process of contrasting with the medical horrors she suffered with language. clear and unambiguous. At the end of the book, the reader is left with a haunting portrait of a few years in the life of a writer. Amidst a tale teeming with disease, death and insecurity, these glimpses of everyday life and endurance are simply inspiring.

Tobias Carroll, a New York resident, is the author of three books: “Political Sign”, “Reel” and “Transitory”. He has commented on books for the New York Times, Bookforum, Star Tribune and elsewhere.

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