Grief wracks us in many ways. Of course, much is made of the mental and emotional toll of grief, as well-wishers encourage those suffering to “take their time” and offer space and a sympathetic ear. But grief, and suffering at large, often manifests itself in physical means as well. Times like these can show that the heart and mind are also fleshy organs, not quite at the far remove we all too-often place them at. It’s this divide—or lack thereof—that Sally Oliver explores in her debut novel, Garden of Earthly Bodies. As Marianne struggles to come to terms with her younger sister’s death, small black hairs begin to appear along her spine. While the hairs seem benign enough, they unsettle Marianne, leading her on a journey of not only medical inquiry but self-inquiry as well, as she confronts the depths of her fears. Garden of Earthly Bodies ripples with visceral language that conceals an ominous underbelly, ever threatening to burst free, but the contrived plot and uneven pacing prevent it from truly reaching the primal core it yearns for.
After a tone-setting first chapter which foreshadows the novel to come, Oliver introduces us to Marianne, a woman feeling lost after losing her sister to death by suicide. From almost the first pages, Marianne’s mind is a neurotic, almost suffocating place, and Oliver does a deft job at conveying her addled mental state. Despite the time since Marie’s passing, the trauma remains, and its effect can be felt in every aspect of Marianne’s life. Her relationship with her roommate-turned-partner Richard is on uneven footing, as the two verbally spar with one another as often as they show each other warmth or affection. Marianne for her part acknowledges she’s sort of going through the motions of a relationship as much as she’s actively participating, though at times she does express concern for Richard.
Marianne’s employment isn’t going much better. She’s risen to the rank of Features Writer at the feminist magazine Empowered, but her boss’s patience for her absence has run out, and after turning in a sub-par piece, she’s let go from the publication. All of this leads her to feeling completely unmoored; so when her doctor suggests a therapy retreat called NEDE, she’s all too quick to accept without questioning her doctor’s rather rigid urging.
The novel alternates between an exploration of the complicated relationship between Marianne and her sister Marie before her passing, and Marianne’s anxious and depressed life and search for a cure—or at least a cause—for the mysterious hairs. Marianne reminisces on Marie’s medical history, starting with her infancy as she was afflicted by Blue Baby Syndrome. Marianne watched teen Marie grow gaunt, ravaged by a mysterious condition of her own, which turned out to be hairy cell leukemia. Despite the unsettling diagnosis, the family is assured it’s relatively treatable, as far as cancers are concerned. But as many families have experienced, rarely is a medical diagnosis such as this so straightforward. Marie’s chemotherapy goes well, though she needs to have her spleen removed as part of her treatment. She suffers sepsis after the surgery, necessitating an emergency procedure, during which her heart stops for two minutes. Marie survives, but after the ordeal, she seems different to her family: more impulsive, meaner; though no one is quite sure how all her maladies are connected.
Hoping to offer some reprieve, Marianne invites her sister to come visit her in London, where she’s begun to make a new life for herself as a magazine writer with her partner Richard, their relationship still emerging at this point. Marie comes, but is put off by Marianne’s new life. It’s during Marie’s abrupt return-trip home that she ends her life. The guilt and compounded trauma sticks with Marianne, and it’s not hard to see her strange condition as some sort of physical manifestation of her deteriorating mental state.
She hopes her stay at NEDE will provide some sort of relief, but of course, the reality is much darker than it first appears. Billed as a sort of meditation retreat mixed with Jungian psychoanalysis and modern medicine, from the ominous “welcome” speech, it’s clear to Marianne all is not well. Things only get darker from here, as the estate grounds are home to many secrets.
It’s disappointing then that we only arrive here with Marianne about halfway into the novel, and the depth of this darkness only becomes clear with about a third to go. This late complication seems rushed from the outset, and unfortunately remains that way through the end. To this point, the novel had been afflicted by various trope-laden sections, from the explanation of Richard’s mother’s cancer, to an early conversation between Marie and Marianne settled on death. But these problems become exacerbated in this final section, culminating in one of the most egregious “info-dump” expository sections of recent memory.
It’s a shame, because Oliver’s prose is quite captivating. She writes with a poetic precision, deftly balancing sections with words charged with sexual and fatalistic tension in equal parts. But the heavy hand of plot, and late turn into the speculative mar an otherwise more sensitive work on the nature of grief, the toll it takes on our bodies.
Garden of Earthly Bodies
By Sally Oliver
Published June 7, 2022