‘Please Read This Leaflet Carefully’ by Karen Havelin – Book Review

Blurb from Goodreads

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully, the debut novel from Norwegian writer and translator Karen Havelin, is the story of a woman whose body has become her enemy.

The novel tracks backward, from 2016 until 1995, etching details of daily life into a gripping and darkly humorous bildungsroman, about the intricacies of love and life in a fragile body.

We meet Laura Fjellstad first as she works and cares for her young daughter, while struggling with debilitating pain and endometriosis, an invisible chronic illness.

As the reader moves in reverse to meet Laura’s younger and somewhat healthier selves (a hopeful bride in New York, a baby queer in Paris, a figure skater in Norway) we uncover her tireless work to gain control of her identity, her illness and the conflicting demands made by doctors, friends, lovers and family.

Man Booker Prize-winning author Paul Beatty says most books about disease try to describe the pain; told in poetic whisper, Karen Havelin’s debut novel lets pain speak for itself. It’s a book that dares you be nosy, to eavesdrop and listen in to a stoic young woman whom no one noticed until she began to disappear, her body disintegrating from the inside out until there’s nothing left but searing agony and almost impossibly―a burning triumph.

Jarringly funny and perceptive; an intimate reckoning with the inner demons and precarity of everyday life, unpacked through the very specific lens of a woman with chronic pain.

My Review

“I have no idea how to talk to people anymore. None of my friends have experienced anything similar enough to know what to say to me. I read their silences and stock phrases as signs that they can’t wait for me to stop talking about my health.”

I haven’t identified so deeply with a book since I was fifteen years old and read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time.

This book has so many echoes of my life.

“Pain has its own logic. It’s a wall with no door, there is no arguing with it, no getting around it, no solving it. Sometimes, I bump against it like a fly against a windowpane for weeks at a time.”

I honestly don’t feel capable of writing a review because it’s just so deeply personal to me. If you want to understand what it is like to live a life with chronic pain and illness then read this. There’s no happy ever after. There’s no brave sickly heroine inspiring others.

There’s just Laura.
And her pain.
Her thoughts.
Her life.
How it is changed irrevocably by pain and by the attitudes of those around her to pain.

The book is ingenious in that it unfolds in backwards chronological order. It shows the evolution / devolution of Laura’s mindset.
Of how pain alters her existence…
The last chapter. That had a 13/14 year old Laura utterly broke me… Because she had this view of the future, this positivity…and because the book unravels in reverse as a reader we already know what her future is…. And because I relate so deeply to this book due to my own longterm illness and chronic pain I saw myself at age 13… I remembered what I thought my life would be…and how vastly different from my dreams it is…

I want to press this book into the hands of people everywhere. So that they understand. So that they don’t look away. So that they recognise the lives of those of us that live with chronic pain and illness daily. So that they accept us for who we are even though it’s uncomfortable for them to be faced with a life so marred by illness. Even though it’s uncomfortable for them to think about how lucky they have it, how much they take healthiness for granted.

“The only sick people I can remember seeing on TV smile gracefully and then die attractively. They’re never anger or bitter, they never feel cheated. They orchestrate beautiful gestures, they head into surgery, content to only say a few well-crafted, self sacrificing sentences that make everyone else grateful for their own health and then they’re gone forever. No abject, terrified misery ever overwhelms them. It’s never about the sick person. Whenever anything too unpleasant or painful or – God forbid – to do with the body starts up, the camera cuts away, leaving the sick person completely alone. Never does anyone let on feeling anger so great it can’t even begin to be translated into words.”

I’m just going to wrap this review up with some more quotations. It’s hard to choose which ones I think are best because I took my favourite highlighter and highlighted passages and lines on almost every page throughout this book.

But those are the ones that resonated the most with me. They’re the ones that I feel like I could have written as they are my thoughts and feelings:

“But even when someone knows the details of my illness, even if they were interested in understanding it, how could I make them understand what sort of world I was living in at the time? I could barely rest because the pain was constant. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like there wasn’t enough light in the world.”

‘As though if you need help in any way, you owe it to the world to tap dance with a grin on your face for the rest of your days and supply photos they can superimpose their inspirational quotes over: “What’s your excuse? The only disability in life is a bad attitude!” To always feel *blessed* and *grateful* despite your life consisting of endless pain, no deciding power over your own life, no privacy and having to rely on people you did not choose to help you out. To answer all invasive questions lightly and cheerfully. To pretend to not see the hatred that is so often right under the surface… …I wish someone would try to convince me to lean on them like they do on TV, with those speeches saying it’s okay to rely on people. People chasing you down to confront you with your flaws in an interested and loving way, so they can tell you it’ll all be fine and that “we’re in this together.” That has yet to happen in my life.’

“I feel as if they’re telling me I’m somehow wrong and therefore don’t have a right to suffer, or to talk about it, maybe even to exist. Maybe their actual message is: *Please stop. I can’t stand my part in this. I can’t stand to witness the relentlessness of your pain.* The further out on the fringes you are, the further from regular people’s lives, the more you are blamed for your troubles. You’d think that if things get very, very bad, there would be support – allowances, and understanding and love like you’ve always wanted. But it’s not true. When things get very bad, people often pull away. They and their reassuring friends have no problem finding sensible reasons for detaching themselves.”

“I never want to need anyone ever again. My life is limited. I can’t take long, time-consuming detours anymore. I have to go straight there. I have to burn it all to the ground or I won’t survive this. The destruction has to be so complete that it closes all windows to the past, until there’s nothing left but a big burnt scar on the ground and smoke tearing through my lungs, my hands black with soot. Nothing to do but turn and walk away. Either survive without or not survive at all.”

“Time spent suffering didn’t teach me anything I wanted to learn. But perhaps as time passes, it’s possible to learn to not blame yourself. Life is hard enough. Take what is offered, because it might not always be around. You can’t be harder and harder, stronger and stronger, more and more disciplined until you compress into a diamond. People aren’t mineral or metal. They are soft flesh, where love and pain echo through the body. Sometimes you have to ease up, to let go. You never know what will be able to help you. Compassion and gentleness are also endless.”

Highly recommended for the outstanding illness representation and for not glossing over the realities of a life dictated by pain and illness.

five stars

17 thoughts on “‘Please Read This Leaflet Carefully’ by Karen Havelin – Book Review

  1. What a captivating story! Thank you for sharing your favourite quotes. It’s not always easy to understand others’ circumstances but books like this certainly help to bridge the divide. I love the concept of writing the story backwards, so the reader can follow Laura’s devolution of pain and mindset. What a fantastic review! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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