Brenda Walker has always loved books. But she never expected that one day they would help her to be well again, or that her account of her rescue would win even more praise for her honest, haunting prose.
An author of four acclaimed novels as well as a critic, essayist and teacher in the School of English and Cultural Studies, Winthrop Professor Walker’s latest work, Reading by moonlight: how books saved a life illuminates the authors who helped her cope with breast cancer, and introduces her readers to the friends who helped her through, including many from UWA.
In Reading by moonlight she discusses the books she chose to accompany her during each stage of treatment: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, reconstruction – and survival.
She is candid about her terror of leaving her son, her ‘field of pollen’, who was 14 when she was diagnosed, and of her mother’s reaction to learning about her illness.
“When (my mother and I) discussed the cancer surgery I said: ‘At least it’s me. At least it isn’t my child.’ There was a slight hesitation before she said: ‘But you are my child.’”
Almost exactly five years since Professor Walker was declared free of cancer, Penguin Australia published her book to a rapturous reception in the national media.
Her previous work, the prize-winning The wing of night, had been released while she was undergoing chemotherapy and she was too unwell to enjoy the ensuing round of interviews and photo calls.
With Reading by moonlight she is able to revel in the attention.
“I found that the very process of reading – surrendering and then regathering yourself – echoes the process of healing,” Professor Walker said. “This is the story of the right book, or books. We each have one life, one share of action and vision and money; a single life for all our speech and thought, our decent gestures and the decisions that might undo us, our welcome or unwanted love, our parties that may or may not come off. One life to satisfy our vast and human sense of voyaging. With the right books we find out what imaginary strangers have done with their share of this amazing thing, life.”
One of the books that comforted Professor Walker during the surgery stage was Dickens’ Bleak house and his Doctor Woodcourt who “cares more about his patients than they care about themselves”. She turned to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of beauty during chemotherapy: “A novel strong enough to hold the attention of a person sitting upright in a hospital bed, waiting for a difficult night to fall. For a night of this kind you need a populous, witty but serious book like this”.
During radiation, Professor Walker read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer ward and, she writes: “He shows something valuable that I discovered during my own medical treatment. The people involved in cancer – the sufferer, the doctors, the nurses, the orderlies – are often occupied less with the cancer than with each other. There are small societies of patients and medical workers and they share what they have: their love and resentment, their stories and observations. Or they sit like sturdy houses and they read.”
Professor Walker describes climbing the Winthrop Tower with one of her students. After the long climb, “we stood on a platform of light and air…it was dangerous and beautiful. the standard cancer mythology is a little like the view from the tower. Cancer is supposed to bring everything into proportion…this may be true of the immediate aftermath of diagnosis, but later, when life resumes, only a residue of this feeling remains.
“We welcome those moments when we rise above it all but you can’t live up there.”
Samuel Becket, Daniel Defoe and JM Coetzee provide Professor Walker with inspiration as she contemplates her lucky escape, her survival. She writes of Becket’s character Malone: “Both he and the reader know his life is drawing to a close, but there are pages and pages before the end.”
- From UWA News 17 May 2010