Charlotte Moore

Mother courage

Helen Stevenson is helped through the trauma of her daughter’s cystic fibrosis by the sublime beauty of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater

Helen Stevenson’s daughter Clara has cystic fibrosis. Love Like Salt is an account of living with the disease, but it is much else besides. Stevenson calls it a memoir, because it is an intensely personal version of events. It is also a scrapbook, a commonplace book, a series of meditations, an exercise in self-scrutiny. It is emphatically not a medical handbook.

Stevenson is a writer, translator and musician; her husband Nico, ‘the kindest man on earth’, is a retired academic and translator of poetry. The book is structured like a piece of music. I’m too ignorant to give you the correct terminology, but there are three movements, and all the shorter passages branch away from, and then return to, the central theme.

The effect is cumulative. To take just the first few pages: a brief preface describing cystic fibrosis is followed by the folk tale from which the book gets its title; a sketch by Clara (now in her teens) of a girl peering round a door; a quotation from Balzac comparing the raising of a child to the creation of a work of art; a passage in which Stevenson sets the scene for the French village where most of the ‘action’ takes place; a quotation from Anna Akhmatova about receiving bad news: ‘And the stone word fell/ On my still-living breast.’ After all this, the narrative itself begins, the story of the tiny baby ‘failing to thrive’, so fragile that her mother ‘thought of her as a candle, cupping my hand around her’.

Clara and her younger sister Verity were born in London, but Stevenson was in pursuit of ‘the idea of France’. As a reader and writer, she sought that intangible feeling that literature provides — ‘it was the lost domain before I ever found it’.

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