A review of The Twelfth Raven by Doris Brett

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Twelfth Raven
by Doris Brett
UWA Publishing
$29.99aud, Paperback, 320 pages, ISBN 9781742585635

One ordinary evening when Doris Brett and her husband Martin went out dancing, the normally super-sharp Martin became confused. After struggling to put sentences together, an ambulance was called, and, in Doris’ own words, “so it begins.” Martin ends up having a massive stroke, suffering extensive damage to the left frontal lobe, which leaves him unable to talk, walk (never mind dance) and eat on his own. The doctors are not hopeful about his prognosis, but Doris, a psychologist, is aware of the latest research on brain plasticity, and encourages Martin to stay positive, and to believe, as she does (mostly) that he will indeed be able to re-learn to eat, speak, walk, and even dance again. The Twelfth Raven is the beautifully written and fascinating story of Doris’ experiences as carer as she and Martin work together toward his recovery.

Doris’ narrative is both personal and engaging, taking us through her own moments of intense uncertainty, the way in which she has to fight and advocate on Martin’s behalf to get him the care he needs (a telling look at our hospital system and its strengths and failings), and her emotional struggles – not only with Martin’s recovery, but with her own reliance on him. For example, she can’t change the computer password or pay the bills without him:

What is flooring me is the mass of practical financial issues I have persistently failed to learn over the years. Although our earning power has been fairly similar and I have always worked except for a privileged time when Amantha was a toddler, daily financial management has always been Martin’s arena. (50)

In addition, Doris has her own health issues, from the regular checks she has to ensure that ovarian cancer she detailed in her book Eating the Underworld, hasn’t returned, to the discovery that she has the rare BRCAI gene, and her subsequent decision to have her breasts removed. There is a mother-daughter story here too, though it is subtly handled as Doris attempts to protect her daughter Amantha from some of the intensity of her own experiene. Throughout the travails that Doris and Martin undergo through their joint recoveries, there is never self-pity, but instead, deep introspection, and a very proactive, creative and life-affirming approach that is a joy to read.

Woven through the story are the many books that Brett has read and researches through the process, her psychological insights, her creative use of fabrics, and her own poetry, which adds not only a lovely richness to the narrative, but makes this as much of a literary read as it is a compelling story. There is also mythology, particularly as typified by “The Trickster” – or Loki, Enki, Coyote, or the Raven that gives the book its title:

Trickster has no home – he is of the road – a traveller, a mover, an itinerant – but the trash heap is where he comes again and again.  This is where he is most surely at home – amount the objects that have lost their assigned function, the pairings that are haphazard, the mess that is wonderfully, brilliantly random.  trickster will find something in there he is the god of the unexpected, the transitional and ultimately the transformational. (296)

The journey is not an easy one, but it is certainly both unexpected and transformational. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that Martin does indeed dance again, or that Brett’s research about the plasticity of the brain proves to be correct (and actually pretty exciting in terms of its implications). Certainly this would be a fascinating and valuable book for anyone interested in how the brain works or who is a carer of someone who has had a stroke. But more than that, The Twelfth Raven is a timeless literary work about the power of love to overcome adversary, about the importance of art to heal the many wounds we all carry, whether that be a recent wound such as a brain bleed or cancer, or whether that be the wound that comes from loss. The Twelfth Raven makes an evocative case for the redemptive nature of art and science working in tandem, and presents a powerful and engaging story.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com