Wednesday 14 May 2008

Halfway to Venus

Halfway to Venus sounds like a Science Fiction novel... but when the Venus in question is of the de Milo variety, things become clear. I don't know how to introduce this non-fiction book, as... well, it is about living with one arm, and the history of amputation in literature and reality. But Sarah Anderson, the author, says how much she hates to be thought of as "the woman with one arm" - and Halfway to Venus shouldn't simply be labelled "the book by the woman with one arm".

Sarah Anderson (pictured below, in a photograph by John Swannell) had synovial sarcoma, a variety of cancer, as a child - which led her to have her left arm amputated at the age of ten. 'I recall feeling that if I could only put into words how much I didn't want this to happen, they would have to listen to me; and the fact that I obviously hadn't been eloquent enough I saw as some kind
of failure on my part.' Anderson's coping strategy, she writes, was not mentioning it; assuming others couldn't notice. Amazingly, Sarah was 19 before she asked her parents, "What happened to my arm?" The central strand of Halfway to Venus narrates her experiences whilst growing up, and also career-wise and relationship-wise - from the travel bookshop which proved inspiration for Notting Hill to potential 'acrotomophiles', who are attracted to 'amputees'. In fact, much of Anderson's examination is not herself, but others - a refrain throughout is that other people are the major issue; trying to anticipate their reactions, but resenting having to be the one to smooth things along.

This, as I said, is the central thread - but Halfway to Venus is so much more. I was a little uncertain about reading the book, lest it be simply misery lit. of the variety which pervades all bookshops, but nothing could be further from the truth. Anderson embarks upon a fascinating and very readable history of amputation, lack of limbs, and the arm and hand as considered through time.
As long ago as AD 80, Quintilian wrote 'other portions of the body merely help the speaker, whereas the hands may almost be said to speak' So many facts leapt from the page - did you know, for instance, that nine out of ten people can't identify their own hand from a selection of photographs?
Woven alongside Anderson's autobiographical narrative, and this anatomical history, are excerpts from many other books, mostly autobiographical, concerning life without certain limbs or hands or feet. These offer a rich collection of viewpoints - and, unsurprisingly, those writing them are as different from each other as any other selection of people. Anderson's own feelings towards her amputated arm aren't clear cut either - sometimes she writes that she hates any reference being made; at other times she appreciates the directness of Americans she met. She enjoys participating in a One-Armed Dove Hunt (!!), but usually avoids any such grouping. A few things baffled me - she, and many others, consider prosphetics as trying to 'be something you're not'. I wear glasses - further down the spectrum, but still a prosphetic, in as much as it gives my eyes sight they wouldn't have in my unaided state. Where can the line be drawn?

It is to Anderson's credit that Halfway to Venus brings out so many questions and reflections and reactions. A very honest book of autobiography, it is also a fascinating compedium, and with an engaging writing style which is all too often omitted from well-researched non-fiction.

Before I go, must just mention a new blog - Oxford-reader - as you can see, from the same hallowed city as Stuck-in-a-Book, and with many of the same tastes. Do go along and toast her addition to the blogosphere.


  1. This sounds a thought-provoking book. I wear glasses and wouldn't be without them. Going blind is one of my worst nightmares.

  2. Quintilian! A writer to remember for your alphabetic list of authors surely! Do you know what else he has written?

  3. Hm. Interesting; Quintilian dedicates his "Institutes of Oratory" to
    'Trypho, eminent book seller in Rome.'

  4. Me again! I couldn't resist finding out about old Quintilian and ended up blogging about him today at
    www dot craftypeople dot wordpress dot com

  5. Very interesting. Makes me think of our own "one-armed bandit" in South Africa, Judge Albie Sachs, who has written about his life with a disability. I remember reading somewhere that we all have a disability of some kind, but that most of us try and ignore it as much as possible. Will look out for this. Thanks.

  6. I proofread Halfway to Venus for Sarah and it really was a privilege to read such eloquently honest words.

    I can't remember whether she knew about the SA Judge ... but the idea that we all have a disability of some kind (often, I would add, not visible and so not counted), rings true with me. However, for reasons of invisibility, it is easier for us successfully to pretend our disabilities don't exist (not a good idea, just often the case) whereas for Sarah the visibility eventually led her to this extraordinary book.

  7. This sounds extremely interesting. I think I may well have to see whether I can find a copy of it!


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