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Christina Patterson overcomes family misfortunes

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

Outside, the Sky is Blue: A Family Memoir Christina Patterson

Tinder Press, pp.416, 16.99

The journalist and broadcaster Christina Patterson’s memoir begins promisingly. She has a talent for vivid visual description, not least: ‘We are a pink and navy family. Two pink girls, a navy boy and a navy wife.’ Her early family holidays in Sweden, where her mother is from, are full of lingon-berries, hammocks and mini-golf. She recounts the story of her parents’ courtship as students and says of their relationship: ‘Love at first sight. Love for nearly 50 years. Love till death do us part’ — ominously pointing out how easy they have made love and marriage look. Most arresting, however, in this early part of the book, is her depiction of her elder sister Caroline’s nervous breakdown as a teenager. From her mother’s diary she quotes that her sister ‘says everything is her fault and mixes up bombs and security agents and hears children crying in the streets’.

Patterson writes about her sister’s schizophrenia with candour and sensitivity. Caroline’s lucidity about her own illness pierces the heart, particularly when a psychiatrist writes to their parents:

I can truthfully say that, except for the doctor patient I mentioned, I have not met anyone before who has been able to talk about their illness so sensibly and objectively.

I was also moved by her delineation of the practical problems of serious mental illness. Despite her best efforts, Caroline is unable to hold down a job, largely because the Largactil she is prescribed makes her sleepy. When she loses her position as a part-time cleaner in the kitchens at the University of Surrey, where she was paid £2.57 an hour in the late 1980s, I felt like shaking my fist at the sky.

Caroline is full of surprises, however, and travels to Russia, fuelled by her interest in the Romanovs; has legions of friends and in terms of romance, Patterson says of her brother and herself: ‘Our elder sister put us to shame.’

Patterson is honest about her own longing for a boyfriend, made more complicated by her finding God as a teenager when she becomes an evangelical Christian and then renouncing him, aged 26, after she is diagnosed with lupus and in great pain. Her brother Tom suffers from anxiety and depression and at one point their mother sits at the kitchen table and cries, saying she is ‘a sunny, outgoing person who liked coffee and cake and shops. She didn’t know what she’d done to produce three grown-up children who were all miserable and ill’. Patterson also writes with clarity about her father’s colon cancer:

My mother often cleared up after him. For better, for worse, in sickness and in health, but no one had said anything about scraping shit off trousers, off beds, off carpets and off the bathroom floor.

She is good at describing the nitty gritty of illness, not least the process of having her breast reconstructed after a mastectomy — the cavalier surgeon who won’t show her examples of his work and the man who does operate on her and on whom she develops a crush, as well as the ‘hot cross bun’ appearance of her breast immediately after surgery: ‘A poor thing, I thought, with its big, red, criss-crossing scar, but also a precious, beautiful thing, because it was my own.’ An old boyfriend, who has a ‘swagger and a sweetness’, somewhat touchingly brings his small children to see her as she recuperates — although his son screams after asking to see the scar on her stomach where a surgeon has taken fat to reconstruct her breast. A new boyfriend admits he doesn’t know what to expect as he undresses her. I am in awe of her honesty as she describes all of this.

I did wonder, however, if she always intended to write a book of this length. She is rightly proud of her down-to-earth style and her achievements, not least in overcoming lupus and cancer to build a successful career and what sounds like a happy life. Nonetheless, I felt unsure as to how excited she was to be recounting her fondness for kettle chips or her various flings.

The narrative meanders somewhat, and I was surprised when she asserts that ‘accounts of therapy nearly always sound banal’ because the rigour with which she writes about her sessions with her shrink make them anything but banal. In contrast, some of the more humdrum details about her office life add little, and there is the sense of her filling in background that neither she nor the reader are particularly gripped by. This is a shame, given how refreshing what she has to say about family and illness is.

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