Reading Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face , the story of her childhood battle with jaw cancer and the resulting facial disfigurement, is like encountering a strange subset of dramatic irony, where the reader knows what the author doesn’t. The aroma of inculcated shame and self-focus that led to her suicide waft from the sensual language that bespeaks a sensitive soul.
Her sensory details are fresh: “I could hear the stockings rasp together on her thighs as she left.” (p. 54)
Small insights interpret the events: “Human presence is the important part of visiting” (p. 58)
Her descriptions are vivid: “[T]he chemotherapy clinic was old-looking drab. … It was completely open, like a lounge, and on the walls hung dark oil portraits of men whose names I never bothered to learn. The couches and chairs were covered in dark green vinyl, the floor was black tile with white traces almost worn out of existence.” (p. 73)
But recording the hyperbole of an adolescent, she leaves the reader wondering whether she’s ever matured past that phase: “This was everything I ever needed to know about Fate.” (p. 82)
Her characterizations are self-focussed, as though the other people in the story matter only in their treatment of her: “Dr. Woolf [an unsubtle pseudonym?] … could carry on a conversation with my mother, me, his nurse, his secretary down the hall, and someone on the phone simultaneously … . Dr. Woolf’s manner was gruff and unempathetic. The first time he examined me I could only flinch at his roughness as his large fingers pressed hard into abdomen, pried open my still stiff mouth.” (p. 74)
The dialogue can be chilling: “Of course you did, fool, what did you think …?” (p. 143)
But Ms. Grealy’s untroubled admission that her dialogue is fabricated undermines her work. In a 233-page complaint about how others have treated her, her lies proclaim her disrespect for her readers.