Book review: Sanatorium by Abi Palmer

Sanatorium by Abi Palmer

Awarded an Arts Council England grant to spend four weeks at a rehabilitation centre in Budapest, Sanatorium is Palmer’s account of this time. It follows her experience of water related therapies, massage and exercise, designed to strengthen her muscles and ease the chronic pain she lives with. Surreal and sensory accounts of water are woven into her experiences of land locked life at home in London, where she attempts to recreate the water therapy in an inflatable bath in her flat.

Palmer’s writing is seductive, the narrator’s voice immerses the reader into her world of visions and sensations, of the body and out of it. Palmer writes of her routine during the four-weeks of sulpherous pools, corridors, buffets and orchestras, while her home life is filled with equally sensory and surreal visions and out of body experiences. And yet, Palmer’s voice is a relatable one. There is a clarity of thought which leaves space to wander and lose all sense of where and who she is. It drifts between physical states through lyrical passages of submersion and flotation. There are regular experiences of floating, of sinking, and of grappling with her own physicality. The states of physical and meta physical are so well drawn, they capture an essence of what it can be like to not be of this world while your body is firmly under the influence of gravity.

The strength in Palmer’s writing holds the reader while she tells you of some of the most vulnerable times in her life, of how vulnerable you are as a disabled person, reliant on the care of others. Palmer’s arthritis and connective tissue disorder means that her body is more fragile than most, incidents of excessive ‘care’ or more exuberant treatments leaving her in greater pain are a silent constant, be it the red raw rubbing of her skin in the bath from a carer or the pummeling in the water of the clumsy physiotherapist, it is an irony that those tasked with her treatment are more than once the cause of her pain.

It is a careful balance that takes time to learn how to navigate, asking for and receiving help in a helpful way. It is not straightforward. The author shows the reader deftly how well versed she is in this, and yet others continue to lack, leaving her again in pain and worse off than she would have been without them, while her reliance on others is a constant. It is perhaps a universal truth for so many with disabilities that you need to become your own expert while not undermining those tasked with your treatment.

The curious setting of the sanatorium in Budapest, and the inflatable bath in her flat in London make for an intensely interior experience. The hotel setting is a strange and at times intimidating experience, not least for the narrator’s isolation – long corridors and intrusive and invasive others create a sense of vulnerability beyond the immediacy of the body. It feels more than a little sinister at times, echoing the corridors of the hotel in The Shining. The interiority of the book adds a layer of suffocation and constriction to the experience of the narrator, it is isolative even when amongst others – capturing a potent glimpse into what it’s like to inhabit the hotel as much as it is to inhabit her own body, both of which feel that they could be of another time and place.

Where the reader meets some of the other hotel occupants, they are drawn sparsely and with economy, but vibrantly, as is the scene setting throughout. There is a surreal nature of people and place that layers beautifully along the fluidity of the internal and external world – the reader drifting in and out of her own consciousness.

Stories of what might be domestic and mundane are not, as Palmer has such an attentive view on all the small things – as perspective shifts when living with chronic illness, they are just as important as the focus on other aspects of life. Her plants on the balcony in London are captivating, but bring great peril – watching her lemon tree under attack, as her own body is, a whole performance is played out as parasites arrive and multiply, and attempts to save the tree are pursued.

The details are exquisite and dense with colour, as the author attends a party in heels that she knows she will later suffer for, to enjoy some time of feeling normal. Of being in the bar with other women talking about men and the postcard pictures painted in sketch form are as large as life as any fully constructed painting.

After Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay, Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and after a year of publications that include Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations and Anne Boyer’s Undying, Sanatorium adds to this beautiful and poignant collection of women writing their experience of their bodies in raw, poetic and unapologetic forms. They are, as well as being captivating and brilliantly readable, also allowing us to begin to rewrite the narrative for women who experience chronic illness and disability, of what it is like to live in our bodies. This gives me enormous hope for the future. Since Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor many have followed, I have renewed hope that dialogues and language on illness can become more nuanced and complex, that medical misogyny and gender bias will change, but only with continuing to rewrite these narratives, and more crucially, for them to be heard.

One section that captures so much of the experience of these strange and complex conditions is held in this short excerpt:

I’m doing all this exercise, but I have all these underlying fears. Am I making the right decisions? Am I being given the right advice? You go through life as a chronically ill person with so many different people who have so many different opinions about how your treatment should be. They’re not always useful or right. You have to build your own narrative and your own sense of what feels appropriate. You have to learn to trust your body to tell you what’s working. But that’s hard too, when your body keeps changing the rules.”

There are so many parallels that I relate to here: of chronic pain, of chronic illness, of living in an unpredictable body, that others around you do not trust your word and where navigating your own physical limitations also means teaching others around you as you learn too, to help support you, to stop undermining you – to be endlessly learning and endlessly preoccupied with your own physical functioning. This is a timely and pertinent publication.

In coming to the end of Sanatorium I am left with a heightened sensory awareness of things that appear in fragments: the hardness of Palmer’s kitchen floor pooled with water, the smell of the sulphurous pool in Budapest, the sounds of the orchestra, and the tastes of the buffet in the hotel dining room. They are as real and peculiar as anything Palmer experiences. This is a beautifully constructed book full of important thoughts, lyrical poetry and prose, and stunning imagery that immerses the reader entirely.

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This is an extended version of a book review written for Spooniehacker at the time of publication.

Abi Palmer is an Artist, Writer and Zinester based in London. This is her debut book, published by Penned in the Margins, exploring the queer female disabled body. Palmer has exhibited her work Crip Casino at Tate Modern and Somerset House and can be found on Twitter and Instagram @abipalmer_bot and here.

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