GRAVE ILLNESS IS a strange thing. It shifts your understanding of places in your heart that you are scared to think about: Places that you consider taboo, until they are in your face and you have no alternative. And it educates you in ways you could never have anticipated. Marilyn Cohen de Villiers’s most recent novel, The Heart Warrior’s Mother is about more than a child with a congenital heart defect. It is about the essence of loving another. Never stooping to the smarmy or the sweet, it is a rigorous and powerful tale written with a strong and empathetic journalistic hand about what the universe gives.
It is here, where we meet Kerry Aarons and her husband, Imran Patel. They’re a South African contemporary couple beset with all the busyness and difficulties of running lives replete with parents that don’t see eye to eye with their inter-cultural marriage, with having a wriggly curious toddler and with trying to make ends meet in a world where the parameters keep shifting with the splaying of values brought about by everything, from loadshedding to Covid-19.
And then, there is Lily. Their baby. The little girl who would render their family idiomatically perfect: A pigeon pair. Only there are curveballs lying in wait that no one could have dreamt of.
Cohen de Villiers writes with a smooth sense of integrity and factual rigour that enables you to experience the texture of her tale without consciously reading it. The work is beautifully constructed with a sense of reality and a pace that might see you reading all night, and finding yourself not only replenished by the values in the story, but profoundly invigorated by the rollercoaster of emotions that it takes you on. This could be your story. Only, it isn’t.
Like George Miller’s 1992 film, Lorenzo’s Oil, The Heart Warrior’s Mother will take you on a journey through an illness that doesn’t have a lot of press coverage. It will take you to the edge of a young family’s need for a miracle. And it will topple you over that edge, as it must.
It’s about making peace on so many different levels – from the ability to name a terrifying illness or worse, without flinching; to the skill of compiling a litany of daily medication for your loved one, and getting it right: Every Single Time. Because you have to. It’s about remembering to be human in the fact of your most terrifying nightmare, and somehow, holding it all together and allowing yourself to listen to the news or brush your hair in the appropriate way.
The Heart Warrior’s Mother is a book you need to access if you are a parent, a sibling, a partner or a child of someone you love. Even if the presence of that someone in your life has never been threatened. The medical material is dealt with, with an intensity of detail and correctness; it is this brilliant journalistic acuity that enables the yarn to hold values that rise beyond its specifics and become metaphorical with a deep, resonant reflection on the relentlessly difficult reality of coming to terms.
The Heart Warrior’s Mother is by Marilyn Cohen de Villiers (Mapolaje Publishers, 2022)