Reviewing GARGOYLES by Harriet Mercer

This week marks a year since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and the first lockdown in the UK. It’s a strange feeling – we remember the loved ones we lost in the pandemic, look back at the way the illness permeated our bodies while the feeling of isolation encapsulated our mind. While thinking of the long-term effects of it all, I also catch myself engulfed in books on the body experience of illness, the suddenness but also the effects of it on our lives. One of those books is Gargoyles, a stunning, brave debut by Harriet Mercer, out on 8th April 2021 from Dead Ink.

A beautifully calibrated blend of memoir and essays, Gargoyles is meticulously structured work which looks at the female body in relation to pain, chronic illness, and loss. One of the first things that struck me was the sumptuous language: beautifully crafted sentences, luminous, poetic writing. “The night limps on, with me tucked under her arm”, Harriet Mercer writes.

The opening of the book transports me to a night when Harriet, forty at the time, is taken to Critical Care at Charring Cross hospital after experiencing excruciating pain in the middle of the night, and is then diagnosed with a rare and life threatening illness. The suddenness of the illness disturbs with its curtness. The following pages depict the experience of the young woman bound to bed for the incoming weeks and months, her body engulfed in pain, while her brain tries to process the condition, the constant pain and nausea, and what it means to live with the physical manifestations of the illness. Recovery is slow, the illness dismantles her usual positive and energetic state and envelops her mind in worry and anxiety.

During her six-weeks stay at the hospital, Harriet stays awake, haunted by her own demons, which take the form of gargoyles spilling from the edges of her vision, dragging with them memories of childhood events, of her late father and his illness. Along with the other patients in the room, the hallucinations of gargoyles imbue the darkness and permanently inhibit Harriet’s thoughts, a metaphor of her fears – sometimes the fear of dying.

The narrative meanders through her childhood memories evoked by the current events. Some of them sound comforting as if balming the body in pain. There is something about the way that trauma healing often happens though evoking memories, much like a memory box. But these memories are most often disturbing: a recollection of loss and traumatic experiences, like the death of Harriet’s partner, an early sexual assault or losing her father to cancer. These memories come back when the darkness settle as gargoyles and haunt her but there is another reason for their appearance: by unlocking them, Harrier re-experiences the events in order to leave the sorrow in the past, and to be able to move on. A lot is written about the need to re-experience the traumatic events in a safe environment as part of the healing process and the act recollection in Gargoyles resembles this practice, albeit in a spontaneous and non-controlled way.

While lying in bed, in between hospital procedures, blood-thinning injections, doctors’ check-ups, her mother’s daily presence and her sister’s reassurance, Harriet gets drawn to memories of dad and the way his alcoholism has made her feel as a child, but she also reasons his decision to isolate himself in his last moments, refusing not only further treatment but also any contact with his own family members, when his cancer relapses. She explores the meaning of home in proximity to her father’s decision to barricade within their home’s constrains, his suffering and her recollections of these moments lead into an act of forgiveness. “My father bled to death. After months alone. I cannot get his pain out of my head. I see him lying there on his bed, on that same bedspread. Scared. No one to soothe his brow. To bring him sustenance. To tell them they loved him”, she writes at the end of Chapter Fifteen.

In parallel to the text, a story of photographs unfurls, as though that the hallucinating brain in extraordinary pain could not be relied to or believed, and needs a visual proof. Most of the featured photos are ones that Harriet Mercer has taken herself, exposing the intimate relationship with her camera. The poetic language spills over the images in a subtle and beautiful way. They are black and white, some of them capturing particular details rather than the wholeness of a view: a feather, rain drops nestled in the tree branches. They all are snapshots of objects in nature, never of people, as if the human emotions that those moments confine, are imprinted over the object, while the person whose emotions are translated onto the paper, remains behind the camera.

By revealing her own vulnerability and her personal path to recovery in this amalgamation of pain, illness, trauma and loss, Harriet Mercer’s Gargoyles offers an enriching literary experience, reclaiming love and life. “Two months ago I couldn’t commute 30cm from bed to chair. I’m running and stumbling, inhaling all the green I could possibly get”, the last sentences are. An exquisite book, powerful and resonant.

Pre-order here

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