Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sarah Anderson's HALFWAY TO VENUS


Tuck your thumb between your second and middle finger, sit down in a Turkish cafe, and those you are with may either thump or laugh at you. You're making as obvious and vulgar gesture in their culture as giving them the finger. This trait of mine is something that runs in families, I now learn, and is shared by around 5% of the population.
I picked this information up from Sarah Anderson's Halfway to Venus. The book is filled with cross-cultural, time-bending insights into the roles played by hands and arms in history and society. Sarah's quest for mastery of the subject stems from the loss of her own left arm at the age of ten. It was amputated to prevent the spread of a rare form of cancer.
Sarah's a friend, but it needs no such close reference to find the early chapters extraordinarily affecting. The reality of a girl's losing her arm is a poignant tale. Somehow childhood illness is something we are protected from as though it hits out at our own presumed innocence. As a child I was stopped from entering a children's ward at a hospital, for what I might see there would be too disturbing. Sarah leads us through the drama of a child's experience of amputation. We see how it touches the lives of her parents, siblings and friends, and even more acutely of course herself ... and the degree to which everyone seeks to separate themselves from the loss. Ten years passed before Sarah was able to ask the question of her parents, Why did this happen? A brisk answer came back and the subject was changed. Imagine, losing an arm, going through the pain of that, yet not knowing why.
This is one of those 'had to be told' stories, for that's the nature of good books, the telling of tales that establish their own truth against a societal norm. The book is tender yet strong, and shifts out into wide terrain just as Sarah has done (an expert traveller, she set up the travel bookstore that became the model for the book shop in the film Notting Hill). She deals with losses of arms in fiction, to which I here add another fine novel, involving a camerawoman's loss of a hand while climbing a sacred mountain in Zimbabwe then going home to face the family in Scotland, Sara Maitland's Home Truths.
I love the 'never say die' spirit in books. Halfway to Venus exemplifies that, as do Sarah's own publishing exploits. This story is self-published by Sarah's company Umbrella Books, the publishing story making gripping reading of its own kind on its own blog. It's not just self-publishing, it's publishing on your own terms. It's a brave, and bracingly successful, achievement. I attended a launch the other day in 50 Albemarle Street, home of the publisher John Murray. With its portraits and its shelves of leather spines the building is redolent of British publishing history. Sarah joins those literary ranks with this book, which is achieving a remarkable series of reviews and high-profile appearances. Grab your copy now before it runs through its second and third editions!

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