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Unexpected Lessons in Love

by Bernadine Bishop

Bernadine Bishop died six months after UNEXPECTED LESSONS IN LOVE was published and her obvious preoccupations while she was writing - cancer, ageing and death - are explicit themes of this, her final, novel. Yet it is anything but gloomy because, as the title suggests, it is, above all, about love in its various manifestations.

Cecilia, a retired psychotherapist, and Helen, a novelist, meet while awaiting treatment for anal and bowel cancer respectively. Despite their very marked differences in personality, they share a similar dark sense of humour which helps them to cope with the fear, discomfort and indignity they both experience, and they become close friends. This relationship is central to the novel which spans several years and various dramatic events including: abandoned babies; dying mothers and friends; missing children; new love; a brush with mental illness; and, a constant riff throughout, the threat of cancer returning.

Bishop worked for many years as a psychotherapist and her writing testifies to her interest and understanding of the workings of the human heart. Her characters, their motivations and interactions, are exquisitely drawn with as much piercing insight as deep affection. There is a sense that she is striving for honesty in her writing whether in her portrayal of the inconsistencies of the human mind or fragilities of the body. When describing the effects of illness, she does not flinch from the gruesome detail, and I feel I now know rather more about colostomy than I hope I shall ever need. Yet this in no way detracts from a wonderful, wise and tender book which I whole-heartedly recommend.

UNEXPECTED LESSONS IN LOVE was shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year 2014.

Published by John Murray, 384pp.

Clare Chandler

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