A STORY in two parts: the first is autobiographical, and narrates how a fiercely proud and intelligent little girl from Accrington — a true Lancastrian — was struck down as a child. One evening, when she was aged 11, her brain began haemorrhaging blood. When she regained consciousness after what would prove to be initial surgery, she became, in her own words, “an embodiment of misfortune, miracle, misery, and mystery”.
Hence the other component of this engaging book. Without an atom of self-pity, Jennie Hogan intersperses each of the subsequent episodes in her descent into semi-blindness and chronic epilepsy with profound theological reflections on the nature of suffering.
“That human life is precarious is a commonplace,” the Revd Lucy Winkett writes in her foreword, but this account of “pain, trauma, illness, recovery, and transformation” effects a transformation in the reader, too.
Hogan has a great gift for writing in both genres: the autobiographical sections sparkle with life. Her phenomenal memory enables her to engage us in all the incidents of her childhood. We learn the names of her teachers, and the staff at her church, St John the Baptist, Baxenden, all this recalled by the little girl who bore “two angry red lines, fixed together by clips and stiches” on her skull.
“Brains”, you see, “have the slippery consistency of jelly but the grandiose complexity of a cathedral.” I have to declare an interest: I, too, have had brain surgery, to control an inherited tremor. I, too, have wondered whether my soul was somehow under attack, as so much lurks in that grandiose complexity, and my very being could be targeted by the surgeon’s drill. But never have I reflected on the issues with the insight and acumen of this account. Hogan knows that the scars she bears are open windows, shining light on her humanity.
Small wonder, then, that she embraced a vocation to the priesthood, “offering her life back to God in an act of sacrifice”. Hence, I would say, the authority of the book: it treats of all the great biblical themes — the Adam and Eve story, the desert, the journey out of slavery, the incarnation, and ultimate transformation — but does so from the inside, and delivers a message that is authentic to the core.
Her book is dedicated to her parents, acknowledging their place in the turbulence of her early life. Equally touching are the oblique references to her partner, Amy. If anyone has a “job” in all of this, it is not the surgeons or nurses. Their care is essential, but so, too, is the companionship of someone who is there to support when the nocturnal seizures set in, the constant companion in adversity.
Hogan is aware that she is blessed; she does not face her traumas alone.
Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.
This is My Body: A story of sickness and health
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70