Book Review: Sanatorium

Abi Palmer is an artist and writer who has suffered from a disabling chronic illness since childhood. In this, her first book, she writes of the treatments she received and the effects they had on her body while attending a thermal water-based rehabilitation programme in Budapest, Hungary. Her visit was funded as part of a research project. Many of her fellow attendees pay for their own, annual visits. The sanitorium reminds the author of a hotel, with comparable private accommodation. This differs from her previous rehab experience, provided by the NHS, in which she shared a ward with 17 other patients.

Entries jump between Budapest, London and Chertsey.

The author lived in adapted accommodation in Chertsey, visited daily by time-stretched carers, to enable her to attend college. Some of the anecdotes she shares of this time, how she was treated, are horrific.

In London she lives with her partner, Hans. When no bathtub is provided in their flat – such provision goes against regulations in case she falls climbing in or out – she purchases an inflatable one from China. Its gradual deterioration is mined for metaphors of her body’s struggle to function adequately.

The stories are presented as short episodes of treatment, interactions and complications. The language used is poetic with much use of imagery.

The author has occasional out of body experiences and vivid dreams. She muses on Saint Teresa of Ávila, a Carmelite nun and mystic who claimed healing through instances of religious ecstasy. The author muses on this and her own sexual escapism.

The pain Palmer suffers is described in succinct yet vivid detail. She also has digestive issues and regular skin complications. Having lived with her condition for so long, she is wary of being pushed too hard at the sanatorium and suffering consequences. Nevertheless, she wishes to give the treatments offered in Budapest a chance before refusing them.

Occasional sketches, drawn by Nick Murray, enhance the text – as does the generous use of white space.

The theme of floating – in water, air and mind – is made more salient due to Palmer’s inability to physically support her body easily. Walking unaided for just a few minutes is a challenge – movement requires mobility aids. Those offering treatment are not always sympathetic to the recurrent pain the author lives with. All this is presented through action and consequence alongside graphic description.

Back in London, Palmer feels well enough to attend a party with friends.

“It felt really nice to be included. I also didn’t have the usual feeling that haunts me: I wish I’d been able to stay longer, I wish I fitted in, I wish I felt part of things.”

I hesitate to describe this as a beautiful book given its sometimes devastating subject matter, yet there is an exquisite quality to the writing that brings it alive. The visionary prose does not shy away from bodily functions and their occasionally gross aspects. What lingers is more rarefied.

Living with pain is shown to be exhausting and consuming but there is more to the author’s life than survival. She retains her appreciation for that which she finds comforting or aesthetically rewarding. An eye-opening but still life affirming read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penned in the Margins, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.

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