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In Sickness and In Health by Nora Gold

Reviewed by Jerry Levy

In Sickness and In Health is the second of Gold's two novellas published as a flip-book by Guernica Editions. Last month, I reviewed the book's first novella, Yom Kippur in a Gym. In Sickness and In Health is perhaps the more traditional of the two works of fiction in that it focuses on a single protagonist. Lily is an art school teacher who grows up with epilepsy, and now, as an adult, suffers periodically from a mysterious illness that doctors suspect may be Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (though even that seems uncertain, as her doctors seem particularly clueless). This is how the novella begins:

Sickness is a foreign country. You are lost there, you don’t know the language, no matter how many times you’ve visited before. Nothing is familiar. You’re alone, but a different kind of alone than usual, because when you’re sick, you don’t have yourself.”

This sickness is the alternate reality the protagonist now has to occasionally deal with, one in which she can only lay in bed, sweating and burning up. A strange sickness that ignores the social and spiritual realms of her more “normal” self, and insists on being recognized as the only emperor of her body, a messy and vegetative one. It quickly morphs into a decrepit and bedridden doppelgänger that clashes and attempts to override Lily’s more optimistic, healthy self. It haunts and brings with it not only decay and a metabolic physical breakdown but also vulnerability, despair, shame, and limitations. Not only that, but it is, if truth be told, a dance with death, brought forth from the underworld, and has its own timetable on when (and if) recovery might be forthcoming. It brings forth all these things and more, including secrets Lily does not wish to share with anyone, even her husband, Perry.

Lily harbours secrets, ones related to her childhood, her epilepsy, the drugs she was obligated to take, and all that entailed. A time when growing up, she was horribly misdiagnosed and labelled, put into neat little boxes by others, presumably so that they could understand her (i.e. diagnosed as being ‘mentally retarded’). Even her mother did as much: “People like you don’t drive cars, hold jobs, get married, or have children.” So now, our protagonist doesn’t dare reveal all those childhood secrets. But why not? What is she so afraid of? After all, she obliterated her mother’s ideas about what she could become: She has two children, a husband, a career, and even drives a car. She’s no longer a sick little girl. Or is she? Is it possible that she perhaps believes that because she was never normal (or told repeatedly she was never normal and certainly traumatized as a result), that she continues to be abnormal? Dr. Gabor Mate, the “stress doctor,” has opined in his book The Myth of Normal that “trauma is a ‘stupid’ friend that our minds and bodies don’t forget.”

If the mind indeed doesn’t forget, then we may continue to carry throughout our lives the notion that we are undeserving of any happiness or rewards, a more “normal” life. Lily says that very thing, that she isn’t normal, never was, and never will be. That putting in long days at work (including volunteer work), running a household, pushing herself, has summoned forth the “Sickness God.” She believes she is being punished for thinking she is normal (which is all she ever wanted), for her “hubris.”

A question arises out of this: Is it a good idea to let those long-standing secrets out of the vault? To your friends, work colleagues, even to your family? The burden of silence is undoubtedly very hard and can create a cycle of shame, betrayal, and the like. It may be though that Lily feels her secrets are too destructive to reveal. It may also be that these secrets will somehow leak out. All this and more, author Gold explores in the novella.

Although the more traditional of Gold’s two novellas, the writing is still most unusual in that much of it is told in second-person point of view. It is as if readers are experiencing the story themselves, living vicariously through the main character. But for a number of reasons, this POV is little-used in narrative fiction. First, a lengthy story told in second-person can weary the reader, especially when the protagonist of the story is unpleasant or someone they can’t relate to. After all, being immersed in the narrative, a reader might take themselves out of the story (and perhaps stop reading) by thinking they wouldn’t react the way the off-putting protagonist does. Second, many readers might not like being told what to think or do. Finally, because second-person is so uncommon, it can be jarring or distracting to the reader. However, this POV can arguably provide the richest sensory experience of any of the POV’s; something an exceptional writer like Jay McInerney used to great effect in his novel Bright Lights, Big City. So too did the poet Gwendolyn MacEwen in her exquisite poem Dark Pines under Water, excerpted as follows:

This land like a mirror turns you inward

And you become a forest in a furtive lake;

The dark pines of your mind reach downward,

You dream in the green of your time,

Your memory is a row of sinking pines.”

Dreams. Memories. Gold allows "you" as the reader to follow her protagonist’s dreams and harrowing upbringing. It’s an internal journey, a strange pilgrimage in the mind of the protagonist/reader.

At times, the novella switches to third-person and even first-person (especially in the very last chapter entitled "Wednesday," which may indicate that Lily is alive and well and has shed her demonic doppelgänger). Keeping a constant POV would have made things simpler and easier for the reader. But maybe Gold didn't want to do that...maybe she wanted to make this a more challenging read, something more experimental. Even avant-garde. For In Sickness and In Health is, in a word, uncommon. Different and innovative.

The novelist Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Here I Am) said that “fiction works when it makes a reader feel something strongly.” To be certain, Gold’s In Sickness and In Health makes you as the reader feel exactly what the protagonist, Lily, does: all the disturbing episodes of her life, but also her successes. This will undoubtedly resonate with those who have undergone (or are undergoing) debilitating illness. Moreover, because Lily appears as a good and decent person, just like the main characters in Yom Kippur in a Gym, we root for her to overcome her pain and suffering and surface intact from the toxic underworld.

Although In Sickness and In Health is a vastly different novella to Yom Kippur in a Gym, it emerges as a wonderful companion piece, primarily because both deal with protagonists undergoing massive amounts of grief and despair. They are both thought-provoking and fascinating works that showcase Dr. Nora Gold’s fine talent as a writer.


Jerry Levy's third collection of short stories, The Philosopher Stories, will be published in 2024 by Guernica Editions. He will be teaching a short story writing course in the spring/summer of 2024 at The Life Institute, affiliated with Metropolitan University. 


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