What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival, edited by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska, is “a hopeful book. Its hope, however, is not the cheap kind peddled by the masters of self-help. It’s the kind of hope you can only find when you let the old delusions go and learn to dance with your fears” (as Dermendzhiyska writes in the Foreword).
The book is divided into three parts: "Struggle," "Self" and "Striving." Each essay is unique and describes an extremely different experience. Below are four that resonated for me.
A. J. Ashworth, in her powerful essay, "Eight," describes the panic she felt as a child that she was going to die, a feeling she relives over and over as a debilitating anxiety in adulthood.
Kate Leaver’s essay, "A Disappearing Act," not only tackles her personal battle with an eating disorder, “I was essentially trying to kill myself in instalments,” but she explores the wider relationship people have with food and why women especially bow to this pressure: “We teach girls to diminish themselves and how we treat women’s bodies as though they’re public property.”
Rory Bremner describes ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) in his essay, "ADHD and Me," as “[his] best friend and [his] worst enemy.”
In his essay, "No Cure for Life," Dr. Julian Baggini debunks striving to live life as if in a fairy tale. “The goal,” he writes, “is a life well-lived” and not, necessarily, to live happily ever after for it is “only good to be happy when we are happy for good reasons.”
This is an extremely powerful collection and not always entirely comfortable to read. Personally, it made me revisit some past experiences and feelings, which wasn’t always easy, but paradoxically therein also lies its power; it made me realise that there was hope for me too. Whether or not you or a loved one is dealing with mental illness, I would highly recommend this collection.
About the reviewer
Laura Besley writes short fiction in the precious moments that her children are asleep. Her fiction has appeared online, as well as in print and in various anthologies. Her flash fiction collection, The Almost Mothers, was published in March 2020. She tweets @laurabesley
Last year, this website managed to reunite me with Jon Wilkins, a colleague of mine in the late 1970s, teachers together at a boys’ secondary modern school in Leicester, an awful place to work, but we survived. We were united by our aspirations to write and while teaching there, I completed a draft first novel with which I did nothing, exhausted by the writing process. Youth is wasted on the young!
However, eventually in 2019 I published my first novel, Afterlives, and Jon was in touch again, after a generous review. I am about to reciprocate, but certainly not out of loyalty, but merit. Jon’s novel, Poppy Flowers at the Front, has been published, a charming and skilful narrative of two young female ambulance drivers surviving the horrors and discomforts of the Western Front toward the end of the First World War. Blending diary entries, letters and a confessional and impressionistic first person account, Poppy and her feisty French friend, Élodie leap off the page, dynamic, contested and intriguing. A life amid mud, death and struggle is evoked wonderfully, with our emotion engaged, but the narrative never descends to any sentimentality. The love affair between the two young women ties together the various complex strands. I will not reveal the plot, which is teasingly seductive and exciting, and must be fresh and unexpected in the readers’ minds.
For an older male writer to capture the lives of these two young and rebellious women full of such life and hopes and dreams is literally a tour de force. Poppy Flowers at the Front unfortunately came out as the Covid lock-down started, but now we are emerging from that peculiar social nightmare, you should read this book and thrill in its twists and turns, and the emotional subtlety that is displayed in the various encounters. It is an adventure, a reflection, a social narrative, and a fine piece of writing. I rate this novel. Brigand Press, a new micro-press, have opted for another fine story, wonderfully narrated and they should be supported in their efforts. Find their website, and buy it! You’ll want to read to the end.
About the reviewer
A graduate of both Leicester and De Montfort universities, Philip Tew is an academic and novelist. Since 2001 he has edited, written and co-written twenty-five scholarly books on various topics, including many on post-war and contemporary British fiction. He published his first novel, Afterlives, in 2019 and a second book of fiction, Fragmentary Lives: Three Novellas, in 2020. A second novel, Clark Gable and His Plastic Duck, is about to be published by Brigand Press in August 2020. He is currently preparing a further book of fiction, consisting of two novellas, a volume tentatively entitled Heroes and Villains.
You can read another review of Poppy Flowers at the Front by Jon Wilkins on Everybody's Reviewing here.