Book Review: My Oxford

My Oxford, by Catherine Haines, is a short and very personal memoir of the author’s descent into anorexia. She posits that the eating disorder is akin to a religious belief where eating is regarded as a sin. Religions have long promoted fasting as virtuous, gluttony as weakness, bodily pleasure as morally suspect. In a world where thin is regarded as good this is an interesting angle from which to look at the disorder.

Anorexia is more than a desire to attain a fashionable ideal – to harbour a preoccupation with the superficial. It is a potentially fatal mental illness that raises issues within the sufferer about the way they wish to exist in a world that dictates behaviour yet admires self-control.

Catherine’s problems started in 2011 when, realising she had gained weight, she went on a diet. Her mother suggested the Cambridge Weight Plan which replaces meals with sachets of minerals and nutrients. Combining these with a daily meal of pure protein pushes the body to fuel itself with fat.

Having met her weight loss goals, Catherine moved to Oxford to study. Here she continued to restrict her intake to 1000 calories or less per day.

Catherine’s studies involved an exploration of the overlap between philosophy and literature, focusing on Hamlet. To be or not to be; to exist or not to exist; if life after death is better than life before then why seek to continue?

Despite being severely underweight Catherine continued to exercise and deny her body nourishment. When family and friends voiced concern, she would eat publicly to avoid their censure. She subsequently suffered guilt at all the calories consumed and was exhausted by the effort of her performance.

Catherine’s year at Oxford included a religious conversion during which she was confirmed and took her first communion. Her intended celebration was abandoned when she realised that she was now mentally incapable of eating. Her academic writing grew opaque and fragmented as she struggled to retain energy and reason. Not eating had become an addiction; denying the body its necessary fuel a way of conquering the self and finding salvation.

The writing is clear and concise, the reasoning of the sufferer well presented. It is not a misery memoir but rather an intelligent attempt to understand why skewed ways of thinking can develop such an iron grip on the psyche. It offers much to consider in how society blames those who eat ‘too much’ or ‘too little’, and the damaging consequences this can induce in their mental health.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, New Welsh Rarebyte.

Book Review: The Plankton Collector

“That picture […] will be amongst the snaps which she keeps all her life in the old chocolate box, the captured iconic moments of seaside holidays, made happy by a trick of memory”

The Plankton Collector, by Cath Barton, tells the story of a family struggling to cope in the wake of a death. Rose and David live in comfortable surroundings with their three children but their marriage is not a happy one. Each believes that, over the years, they have given the other what was expected and required, yet neither feels fulfilled. When their elder son, Edgar, dies following an illness they and the boy’s siblings each retreat into individual, dark shells.

Ten year old Mary seeks solace in books, escaping from her home when she can, now that Mother is always crying. On a day like any other she meets a stranger who, despite warnings to the contrary, she knows she can trust. He takes her to the seaside where she plays with a new companion. The episode is surreal, inexplicable, yet remains as a comforting memory.

Rose’s memories from her younger days bring her little comfort. She believes she was happy once, before she lost her best friend. Now she has lost a child and fears her husband is increasing the distance between them. A stranger she meets as she tends her son’s grave takes her on a journey that reminds her she must work on the small things so as not to be defeated by the bigger picture.

Twelve year old Bunny meets the stranger in a den he used to spend time in with Edgar. Bunny finds he can talk almost freely about many issues that have been bothering him, although not about his father. The man understands and knows to bide his time.

David is troubled by his recent behaviour yet unsure how to extricate himself. To help him the stranger, in the form of a rich uncle, offers to take the children away for a week’s holiday. Left to themselves Rose and David can talk about their growing rift.

The stranger is the Plankton Collector, although to each he goes by a different name. He appears when most needed. The journeys he takes with each family member are as real as they need them to be.

In haunting, exquisite prose the author explores the disconnects that exist within families as each deals with the internal difficulties inherent in life as it progresses. Moments of happiness can be overshadowed by loss, yet it is the former that should be granted attention and treasured.

In this short novella a world has been conjured that recognises the depths of unhappiness yet offers hope. It reminds that reactions when grieving are neither uniform nor prescriptive, but that individuals, once known, are never entirely lost.

‘You will remember this place,’ he continued, ‘and you will always be able to come back to it in your minds. No-one can take your happy memories away from you.’

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, New Welsh Rarebyte.