This is a book of the triumph-over-adversity genre, or what Pav calls pathography. It’s about the writer’s husband, Jhonnie Blampied, who suffered a brain injury when he fell off his bike. The writer,Ruth Ritchie, is a film and TV reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald.
Of course, I bought the book because of my sister in law. Prepared to identify, learn more, and all that. Ritchie’s husband’s injury was different in cause, severity, age and health of injured person, but their main trajectory was similar; Sudden catastrophic event, spell in ICU, move to hospital ward (and realisation that they’ll live, but with what deficits not yet known); Rehab; then home. But apart from this skeletal plot outline, and the knowledge that personal tragedy is what it is despite differences in circumstance, the book didn’t really speak to me as a fellow traveller on the ABI road.
Talking of the SMH thing, you can’t shake the feeling throughout this book that it’s part of a broadsheet Lifestyle section, with its crisp David Jones bedlinens, gorgeous platefuls of exquisite food, and articles about people in seven-figure houses with children who go to the best schools in crisp straw hats. Yes, I do sound mean and politics-of envy-ish; How can I say that about a woman whose husband, the father of her two children, met with such a horrible accident just when there was a three-month baby at home? All I can say is despite the undeniable traumas she went through, the family’s lifestyle was so replete with financial and social cushions it bears scant resemblance to what a more “typical” person might go through. It makes me feel like the Fairfax lifestyle magazines do; impressed, but not able to identify.
Husband Jhonnie (Bogans are mocked when they misspell their names, but not the Naw Shore) is a former highly-paid CEO who has just taken a golden parachute in order to work as a consultant. Let’s just say that the stress of a typical family struggling with the sudden incapacity of the main breadwinner isn’t apparent. Yes, school fees and child support get a mention. But the crunch never really comes. There really is an awful lot of spending in this book.
When the author receives the fateful phone call, it is necessary to tell us she’s between “egyptian cotton” sheets. A strong feature of the book, as this review points out, is the relentless food fetishism. Many writers bring out the beauty and the poetry of food, but many of the food descriptions in Waterlemon are a litany of expensive purchases. Although numerous laksas and other (not McDonalds) takeaways are consumed, the home and restaurant cooking as described is jaw-dropping (and droolmaking, I have to admit). Beef can’t just be beef, but is “fat boy Angus” or “those amazing little spicy cubes of Wagyu beef they do so well”. Lamb has to be “thick organic lamb cutlets” and “excellent lamb racks”. Fish is John Dory, veal “White Rocks” (what the hell is that, anyway?). No corners appear to be cut in this house, there is no end-of-the-week juggling of mince and Tofu and tinned tuna to eke out a household budget (there is no mention of a budget).
There’s the baby, of course. A three month old baby, at such a time. Major stress. But there’s also a difference… he has a full-time nanny.
…Last night Anna Ritchie and I ate some fat-boy aged Angus steaks (roast leeks, pumpkin and snow peas). Esther stayed for dinner and demonstrated enormous vegetarian tolerance of all that rare beef, and kept her filthy capsicum risotto to herself.
…Patrick is mostly in the capable care of Meera, an amazing woman who started working with us a month ago. she already has a tight relationship with both the boys and can clearly do a better job running the household than moi. (See, if we didn’t have any help with the children, this never would have happened.)
But one must economise:
My car went yesterday. We won’t be needing a two-door convertible any time soon. So I’m driving Jhonnie’s new Audi. This is the first new car Jhonnie has ever owned… It arrived around the same time as Patrick, and he loves it nearly as much. Chock full of very Jhonnie toys, seven seats, great stereo and a chassis that goes up and down – presumably for the change in terrain between Cremorne and Elizabeth Bay. His favourite toy is the sat nav…”
At one point financial reality seems to be about to intrude. There are mentions of this or that income stream coming to an end. But, since her little boy starts school at Cranbrook soon after Jhonnie comes home – fees currently start at $12, 384 for Prep-2 and end at $19,734 for years 11-12), they clearly don’t end up on struggle street. When Jhonnie finally comes home, to celebrate, they book tickets to fly to New York to see The Producers on Broadway. And so on.
Yes, I sound like a sourpuss old sour grapeser. But it’s hard to identify with Ritchie. She didn’t like the social worker at the hospital; well, fair enough, and he was probably no genius, but how many of us would say “…we talked about getting him fired…”? The constant disdain got to me- in the hospital: “I haven’t caught public transport since school….I don’t see a lot of miserable government-issue public spaces on a regular basis…” and driving to the Rehab: “…I’d escaped the tyranny of peak hour traffic in the clogged arteries that pump the pergola-building masses from their renovated homes to their very promising jobs”.
The book always seems to be on the edge of a revelation about how different, and how privileged, her experience is compared to the pergola-building, nannyless, sausage-eating masses, and their representatives in adjacent hospital beds, but it never comes.
There’s another strand through this book, and it’s horribly riveting, though nothing specifically to do with brain injury. In a toe-curlingly personal, remorseless and fascinating way, like some personal bloggers, Ritchie trashes her extended family and her husband’s ex so utterly and in such detail (publishing scores of personal emails, verbatim, throughout the book) that you can never see her going back to having any kind of relationship with them again. Which, when I thought about it, was unfair on the subject and raison d’etre of the book, whose family it was. (The writer’s own family, of course, are uniformly lovely). While the family might well be as dysfunctional as they’re made out to be, what now, now that all the family’s personal failings have been hung out in the village square for everyone to see? While the ex might well be as clueless a waste of space as the writer makes out, her portrayal is an extreme trashing of a reputation, out in a locally published, popular work of nonfiction (and one which her two stepchildren- the children of the trashee– are bound to read one day). Like the AGE reviewer, I felt uncomfortable and thought that some fundamental boundary had been crossed. But where is that boundary? I admit it’s difficult. One hopes it doesn’t come back to bite her one day, but after the Pergola-building masses, does one really care?
So, two stars for this book as a realistic taste of what life with a brain injury might be like, but five stars as a juicy deckchair read for those who’d delight in a raw expose of how the Other Half Responds to trauma, in all its bitchy, gourmandising glory.