Book Review: Who In This Room (The Realities of Cancer, Fish and Demolition)

by Alex TwoSpirit

Death will always evoke a mixed range of emotions. Titillating still are the gruesome and bizarre circumstances that make the news; perpetually enraging are the abuses of the innocent. Yet disease narrows down the range of human response, and for good reason: people are terrified of slow death. Cancer specifically comes to mind. Practically everyone knows someone who has it, had it, or has died from it, and while we still struggle for definitive causes and cures, how can one not worry about becoming the next statistic? In response, our society seems almost compulsive in its need to smother the problem in colorful ribbons, upbeat charity runs, and slogans that include giggle-inducing words like “tatas” and “boobies.”

Consequently, it’s hard to imagine that any cancer-related memoir wouldn’t fall prey to white-washing the ordeal through this same well meaning optimism, or automatically drive readers away by not doing so and detailing too much of the harrowing experience. Impressively, Katherine Malmo manages to avoid either pitfall in her work of creative nonfiction, Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, And Demolition. I can honestly say I wasn’t sure this was possible, especially in regards to inflammatory breast cancer, but by page 8 I was engrossed… and the first chapter technically starts on page 3.

There’s nothing orthodox about this read. The timeline doesn’t flow in chronological order, nor does the narrative view stay the same for the course of the memoir, changing as the author embraces what is happening to her. In addition, Katherine chooses to share specific moments from her treatment in lieu of the entirety of it or her life. At times, chapters read like snapshots of an almost normal day – at the apex of her treatment her style slides into a rote recounting of affairs that reflects her detachment and quiet despair. The author’s ability to capture small details of the moment is both remarkable and believable. From her inner monologue of what sandwich preferences a doctor must have, to the background droll of a fashion advice show “Kate” frequently distracts herself with while awaiting scan results; the careful recalling of tears sliding past blades of green into earth; the insipid reality of drainage tubes and mouths that taste like paper clips, it all paints a vivid picture prompting just one more page turn.

While Ben, her husband, is the second most prominent figure in the book, Kate shares her life with a revolving cast of women struggling with breast cancer. They act as a mirror at times, reflecting how her life could end up, while at other points imparting practical knowledge, vocalizing her conflict over how to treat breasts that no longer exist.  The humor presented is witty and dark (which quite frankly feels all the more real given the situation), but never gives the impression of being forced or inappropriate. Like the rest of life, Kate reminds us that coping with this disease, and its treatment often borders on the absurd, and it’s hard not to crack a smile at the incident the title phrase is chosen from.

Regardless of your familiarity with the subject matter, Who in This Room is well worth the read, and can be consumed within a weekend. The reflections contained within will stay seared in the mind far longer, a raw glimpse behind the curtains into the joys and sorrows of life when at its most uncertain.

Seattle-based writer Katherine Malmo’s Blog:

Corvallis-based CALYX Press: