By Zara Slattery
Publisher: Myriad Editions
Storytelling is a strange art. Finding the hook that draws in the reader comes in many different forms. And it certainly helps if that hook is an original one. I wasn’t anticipating the story in Coma – I thought it would exclusively be a trippy, Gaimenesque journey through a fantastical world serving as an allegory. There are aspects of this, but the driving force is something different entirely.
Coma is based on the real-life experience of the author. Starting with a sore throat, her health deteriorates until she’s barely able to stand. Doctors at the hospital are initially baffled until, eventually, a deadly bacterial infection is diagnosed. Drastic surgery, intensive care, and a coma follow. She’s barely recognisable as the person she was just days before due to the swelling. It can’t get more serious.
Throughout Zara’s coma, her mind attempts to rationalise her experience. In her delirium she is confronted by many oddities and confusing scenarios, and this bizarre journey is documented throughout the book. Fascinating as it is to experience her frenzied inner battles, it’s the other story that takes a firm hold of your heart. For in the outside world Zara has a husband and three children. A father, wider family, and friends. And it’s through their eyes that we really get to understand the trauma of the situation.
The intensive care staff encourage Dan, Zara’s husband, to keep a diary. This is for Zara’s benefit, so she can make sense of the days she will lose to the coma. And it’s largely (but not exclusively) this diary that Zara uses later to construct the narrative of the book. Dan’s faith in the NHS, and his initial optimism, wrong-foot him entirely, and by the time the full seriousness of the illness is revealed he becomes increasingly lost in helplessness. Surrounded by routine, necessity, and the kindness of family and strangers he wants for nothing in the care and provision of the children, not to mention emotional support. But, when all’s said and done, there’s simply nothing he can do that can make a difference to his wife’s sickness. That’s a battle she must fight alone.
Because it’s a diary, it’s honest, it’s immediate, and it’s raw. Some things the family does, like shopping trips, enjoying fish and chips, and a birthday party, all feel incongruous. Almost an act of unfaithfulness when a wife and mother fights for her life across town. But what else should they do, and the diary helps to underscore that Zara is far from forgotten or ignored. The distractions are, of course, essential.
I took this book to bed with me to read. It’s quite thick, so I figured two evenings would do it. I read it in one, unable to step away from the heart-wrenching experience.
The following morning my mind keeps churning over aspects of the story. The fragile nature of our health, the brilliance of our NHS, the kindness of neighbours, and the importance of family. It’s a book that shows us what’s really important. Genuinely moving and extremely thought-provoking, Coma is a book everyone should spend some time with.
And if you liked that: Pick up Biscuits (assorted)