Cover art for “Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies” owned by Scribner

Maddie Mortimer’s debut work “Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies” is a story of one woman’s life that is punctured with the calamity of disease and the affliction of fraught relations. Our protagonist is 40-something Lia, who’s facing a cancer recurrence; what was once breast cancer has spread to her liver and lungs. We know this not because Lia tells us, but because the cancer does. The disease functions as a narrator throughout the novel in odd little vignettes and episodes, interrupting the present-day story and the flashbacks to the past as it reveals its malignant course and confesses its plain craving to conquer Lia.

Mortimer’s personification of the disease is not her only unconventional choice; to knit together the three braids of the story — the present, the past and the disease — she does not abide by a traditional composition. “Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies” lacks a refined structure: There are no quotations, no rules. Paragraphs are frequently split up and fractured on the page, dialogue is typically disjointed and inner thoughts are both metaphorically and literally dissevered. This uncommon approach is reminiscent of 2019 Booker Prize winner “Girl, Woman, Other,” but while Bernardine Evaristo’s innovative form was lauded for its originality, the same compliment cannot be extended to Mortimer. We have simply seen this before. 

Even so, her choice to write the cancer as a narrator should be acknowledged. It was the reason I picked up this novel; I was initially fascinated by the idea and was certainly curious. Though the cancer does detail its metastasis, what I found to be most compelling was its infatuation with Lia. As she grew weaker, the cancer seemed to fall deeper into a sick sort of love. “It’s her house, and she knows I am here, bursting with the knowledge of all her fractures, strains and failures — For you, I want to scream, this is all for you, but instead I stretch my arms up above my hidden face, my mandibles click into place, I hear the orchestra begin to shift their key as if a poison has infected the melody.” Mortimer’s most captivating choice was to have the cancer love Lia as opposed to hating her. This decision was only undermined by its needless frequency and sloppy finish; near the end of the novel, the cancer’s narration felt more intrusive than purposeful, more bizarre than enthralling. It detracted from the larger story and stood in the way of polished character development. 

Another failure of “Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies” is the language Mortimer employs to discuss disease. It was disappointing to see Mortimer use the same “military” language often attached to discussions of cancer — that the disease marks a battle for the patient, that the cancer is infiltrating, invading, seizing the body. Lia contemplates her body’s “betrayal,” a sick philosophy that positions the patient at war with themselves. If you are betrayed by all you are, what is left?  

“So how would the fight begin?” wonders Lia. “Would there be some warning, some sign that it had started? A horn? A quaking-gallop-humdrum on the horizon, flags in the wind?” 

The language we, as a society, use for disease has been challenged for decades, notably in Susan Sontag’s 1978 “Illness as Metaphor” and 1989 “AIDS and Its Metaphors.” I desperately hoped Mortimer’s rendering of cancer would oppose the figurative speech and military descriptions of cancer that often victimize the patient, but Lia is understood as an intensely self-deprecating woman who hates herself and views cancer as punishment. By extension, Mortimer reiterates the misconception that cancer is something to be ashamed of, that illness makes you less. Her presentation of cancer is unoriginal and unremarkable. Though this book is noted as a “meditation on illness and death,” it adds nothing new to the genre nor the discourse.

Though Lia’s cancer is evidently paramount to the novel, the best parts of the story are those that center on Lia’s familial relationships. Lia has a tween daughter, Iris, who is the savior of the work. She is inquisitive, she is blunt and she is awfully dynamic. As Lia’s characterization grew increasingly monotonous, Iris brought vital relief to the page. I admire how she speaks plainly to Lia about her illness instead of cowering in front of the disease like Lia’s husband. Yet, through snippets shared of Iris at school, Mortimer clarified that Iris wasn’t unaffected by her mother’s dying — she’s prone to making impulsive and distressing decisions assumedly driven by her moribund circumstances. Through Iris, Mortimer achieves a nuanced depiction of the fluctuation and variability of grief. 

The real tension of “Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies” is not embodied by the disease, but rather by the relationship between Lia and her mother. Lia grew up in a vicarage with her father and God-fearing mother, Anne. Lia, however, was unafraid to admit her disbelieving stance, which is framed as one of the original sources of tension between her and her mother. Anne is described to be visibly disturbed by her daughter and fundamentally removed from her. It’s more than an inability to connect — Anne was unnerved by Lia, and her perturbation was quick to morph into aversion. When Lia leaves for college, she tells her mother she’ll never come back, to which Anne replies, “Good. I’m sure then we will know some peace.” 

The upsetting flashbacks cloud the present and make for excruciatingly awkward present-day scenes where Anne accompanies Lia to her numerous doctor appointments and treatment sessions. Though Mortimer supplies that Anne’s presence here marks her attempts to make amends with Lia, she fails to paint a believable reconciliation. Mortimer wants us to accept an abrupt reunion seemingly founded on death and disease without ever providing an explanation for their newfound proximity. 

Though perhaps “Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies” deserves its Booker Prize nomination due to its unorthodox style and its unique narration, its regurgitation of lackluster representations of disease and its failure to effectively resolve significant character tensions make its position on the longlist understandable and concurred. 

Managing Arts Editor Lillian Pearce can be reached at pearcel@umich.edu.