Seattle resident Nicola Griffith is a lesbian writing about a lesbian, a person with MS writing about a person with MS, but it would be a mistake to relegate this book to a niche like "LGBTQ Lit" or "Disability Lit." "So Lucky” is a tightly-plotted, semi-autobiographical thriller.
“So Lucky,” the explosive new novel from award-winning author and Seattle resident Nicola Griffith, is a departure from Griffith’s previous work in speculative fiction and historical fiction. It draws on Griffith’s experiences as an immigrant from England, a martial-arts instructor, a lesbian and a person with multiple sclerosis. But this is not an illness memoir. “So Lucky” is a tightly-plotted, semi-autobiographical thriller.
Events unfold quickly in crisp, clear prose like a hot flame on dry kindling. The protagonist, Mara Tagarelli, separates from her wife, begins a new affair with an old friend, is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is fired from her job as executive director of an AIDS nonprofit because of her new disability — all within the first 30 pages.
Almost immediately, she dives into a new project, CAT, or the Cripples Action Team, a disability activist group “with an active, evolving mission to help disabled people help ourselves,” an alternative to support groups sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. The action moves at a frenetic clip, and amid all the activity, a grinning monster lurks.
As Mara’s treatments progress, so does her understanding of what it means to be ill in an able-bodied society. Her canes, visual markers of impairment, “write [her] out of the story” both in the corporate and medical worlds. She builds community with other self-identified cripples online, who find power and pride in the slurs tossed their way, but also experiences neglect and disrespect from all sides that leaves her frighteningly vulnerable. There is the physical therapist who relates an anecdote about a fellow physical therapist who broke both of a patient’s hips during treatment — while he’s administering that exact treatment for Mara. And the home-security-system installer who comes into Mara’s home to install an updated system, and then ignores her request that he leave.
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That vulnerability, and Mara’s fury over it, forms the spine of “So Lucky.” Griffith is a lesbian writing about a lesbian, a person with MS writing about a person with MS, but it would be a mistake to relegate this book to a niche like “LGBTQ Lit” or “Disability Lit.” Mara is no one’s gay best friend or inspirational cripple. She is intensely, furiously human. Her anger makes her reckless and her fear turns her selfish and petty. She spends too much time yelling at people on Twitter, and her romantic relationships are a mess. It’s because of this, not in spite of it, that her story is universal, the story of how a human being faces fear when there is good reason to be afraid.
Griffith’s brutal, unsparing style suits the brevity of the book, and makes the cascading small encounters with ableism, as well as the tense climax, truly frightening. The narrative feels compacted, but not crushed. Griffith deftly reveals only what is significant, creating an effect that’s like how Mara describes a correctly executed karate strike — like “butter sliding down the hot steel of a coiled spring.”
If you have ever had that moment of realization that someone is stronger than you, has power over you and could do you harm either because they mean to or because they just aren’t paying attention, “So Lucky” is for you. It is full of power and healing, like a forest fire that will burn every single thing to the ground to make way for fresh green growth.
“So Lucky” by Nicola Griffith, MCD x FSG Originals, 178 pp., $15 trade paperback