When Caro Llewellyn’s father Richard was 20, he became one of the last people in Australia to get polio. Perhaps at least partly due to the healthcare system’s negligence, the disease took away movement and feeling in his legs and most of his arms. With little disability support available in the ’60s, Richard had to rig his own workarounds in a world built for able bodies, using his considerable charisma to seduce a young nurse into marrying him.
Llewellyn’s memoir is in part a tribute to her father’s survival and her mother’s heroic sacrifice. Richard, she says, is her “caped superhero at the ready”. It sounds like a fairytale of triumph over adversity – and indeed the reality proves to be very different. Caro’s upbringing in Adelaide is fairly dysfunctional. Her mother Jill suffers from major mental health issues, and Jill and her brother are shipped around between friends and family, before the family finally breaks apart.
Caro lives by the mantras she absorbed from her upbringing: live each day as your last, carry on as if nothing is wrong, all you need is a good story. They see her through her adventures to Sydney and New York directing major writers festivals, in her romantic dalliances, and in raising her son Jack. But when she is diagnosed with MS while living in New York, she comes to realise “not all of them were wise”.
There is something unsettling at the core of this book, in its depiction of the damage our family narratives can do. It also struck me as novel in its depiction of sickness. Sickness and suffering, we are sometimes led to believe, lead to virtue. But Llewellyn’s warts-and-all account is an blunt repudiation of this idea. Her story ends on an admirably ambiguous note.
There are a number of interesting themes explored in Llewellyn’s memoir, such as Australia’s shockingly poor attitude to disability, which saw Richard unable to finish a degree because the uni didn’t have accessible buildings. I hope that situation is improving. Likewise Llewellyn’s depiction of coming to terms with her diagnosis, and her callous treatment by medical staff, rings awfully true. I was gripped by her furious struggle to regain something of her normal life in the face of oblivion.
There is also plenty of enticing gossip in Llewellyn’s tales of moving in the circles of famous writers, such as Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth, from whom she is entrusted with a so-far unpublished tell-all memoir.
As with all memoir, there are tantalising glimpses of other perspectives, evasions I sensed that must be to respect the sensitivities of others. But on the whole, kudos to Llewellyn for baring some tough and complicated decisions.
The writing itself is straightforward, and was not the drawcard for me. It’s a page-turner, and I found myself speeding through to find out what would happen next.
Gay rating: not gay.
Diving Into Glass is published by Penguin.