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Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces

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It was a shuffling in his legs that had made Douglas-Fairhurst seek medical advice – and now a neurologist confirmed the worst. This memoir documents his experience of illness since then, but also ranges back over his earlier life. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and an award-wining biographer and critic. A few seconds later I found myself peeing into a bush, just outside my front door, while an elderly neighbour walked past tutting and her dog looked back at me with a new found respect. Weak, vulnerable and permanently attached to a drip, he would be barrier nursed for a month at least.

He struggled to find words that were not ‘ungenerous or ungrateful’ for a Facebook post, which I remember seeing, in which he says that ‘the line between sympathy and pity is one I’m especially keen not to cross. I found this upsetting as myself and others simply have to choices, the NHS is too streched and the only option is to muddle through a descent towards increased poverty and dissolution. In his lovely, book-lined room in Magdalen College, Oxford – open a window, and you may hear the sound of a deer coughing in the mist – Douglas-Fairhurst, a fiftysomething professor of English whose studies of Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens have won literary prizes, and who has acted as the historical consultant on, among other productions, the TV series Dickensian and the Enola Holmesfilms, gamely waves an ankle at me.

While this book deals with distress, physical pain and uncertainty, its wry humour and lightness of touch make it anything but a misery memoir. You can change your choices at any time by visiting Cookie preferences, as described in the Cookie notice.

When the trapdoor opened for Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, he plummeted into a world of MRI scans, a disobedient body and the crushing unpredictability of a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Yet, as with everything Douglas-Fairhurst does, it's also beautifully written, with great humanity, and wit (occasionally laugh-out-loud funny), and it doesn't dodge the serious business of being at the mercy of one's own increasingly self-defeating body. For me the funniest moment arises from a wholly unfunny circumstance; one of the symptoms of his condition is urinary ‘urgency’. An account of living with multiple sclerosis that is both deeply literary and painfully honest as it charts his journey into ill health.

But better wilful legs (and knee pads) than some other things: “The less the body works, the more you appreciate any bit that still does. After his transplant, he would need to remain in an antiseptic bubble until his body started to repair itself with the help of his new stem cells. Written by an entertaining storyteller and offers a rare insight into a situation that few people will have to face, but that it does us good to contemplate. Douglas-Fairhurst makes illuminating reference to a great many texts, notably Peter Pan and the Alice books on which he has written so authoritatively.

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