“You scared? You should be. It’s aiming to kill you. And I doubt you’ll stop it.”
Those are the words Mara Tagarelli hears during her first support group for people with multiple sclerosis. Mara was diagnosed in the same week that her wife left her and her best friend (and new romantic partner) moved to New Zealand. She also loses her job as the head of a prominent AIDS foundation, in part because of some of her actions in the face of her diagnosis.
Nicola Griffith writes So Lucky from personal experience, as she, like Mara, has MS. This is important because so much of the book is about Mara’s desire for those who have disabilities to speak for themselves and be part of any efforts at support and assistance. To that end, Mara starts a nonprofit that provides help of various types to people with MS and other disabilities. Mara is a fighter, trained in martial arts, and fighting is how she copes.
This short novel is not, however, a work of an inspirational figure striving against all odds to beat her diagnosis. Mara is a bit of a control freak who closes herself off from people. Her temperament stirs her to productive action, but it also makes the loss of control that her disease brings all the more galling and difficult. As a former executive of a prominent nonprofit, she was used to being at the center of the conversation at professional conferences, but now, as someone with a disease, she’s socially sidelined, even when invited to speak.
Multiple sclerosis also makes Mara vulnerable in ways she’s not accustomed to. Travel is exhausting, and although the airport provides assistance in the form of a wheelchair and escort, that help comes with a loss of control and a sense that she’s little more than baggage. On top of that, Mara comes to believe that someone is stalking the MS community, robbing and killing vulnerable people. She sees shadows everywhere. Is her mind being affected?
This is the eighth book that I’ve read (or attempted) from the Tournament of Books shortlist this year and one of my favorites. It’s only 178 pages, so I was able to read it in a single morning — I never wanted to put it down. The main thing that I appreciated was the full immersion in the day-to-day mental and physical challenges Mara faces. I don’t know how typical her experience is, or even how close it is to Nicola Griffith’s own experience, but being able to see life through Mara’s eyes helped me understand aspects of disability I hadn’t given a lot of thought to before.
I’m still pondering a couple of threads, mostly those related to Mara’s mental state. The serial killer plot could seem over the top, but, to me, it fit nicely with Mara’s feeling of being pursued and stalked by MS itself. And her possible delusions work at revealing how, for Mara, reality itself has been upended. And the fact that both of these threads remained on the periphery for most of the book worked for me. If they’d been the central story, the book would have started to feel ridiculous. But as it is, the core drama is based in regular daily experience. In the end, I thought this was pretty fantastic, and I’m glad to have read it.