Fiction: Gina's Therapy
Mercier Press, €16.99
Cancer isn't a word one associates with comedy and many of the passages in this novel are harrowing, presenting a protagonist with ovarian cancer.
But then, assisted suicide is not exactly a hoot either - even though Jojo Moyes' character Lou Clarke gave us many laughs in Me Before You and its sequels. Stella Sweeney's travails in Marian Keyes' The Woman Who Stole My Life gave us lots to guffaw about, despite Stella being paralyzed from Guillain-Barré syndrome.
India Knight's Mutton kicked the humiliations of ageing out of the park, with Clara Hutt facing one extremely funny midlife crisis after another.
There are glimpses of all three of these authors in Sylvia Sbaraini's second novel and that's no bad thing. A supporting cast of lunatics helps enormously, but Gina is not exactly a rock of sense herself.
After a somewhat slow start, the story settles. Gina is a freelance writer, almost 50, living somewhere on the London commuter belt. She writes for a soft-porn magazine called Eurotica and contributes regular articles about feline wellbeing to a cat lover's periodical, although she doesn't own a cat.
She's young to have a grandchild, Chrissie, who is seven and whom she adores, but then she was young to be a mother, falling pregnant at just 15 with her daughter Susan (formerly Skylark). Remember Lorelai and Rory in the Gilmore Girls? OK, forget them.
Gina and Susan hate each other. And since Gina refuses to discourage her granddaughter's fixation with turds, Susan/Skylark eventually stops Gina from seeing Chrissie altogether.
And then there's Olly, Gina's ex-husband. A daily hash smoker and accidentally famous artist, Olly still calls around regularly. He and Gina usually end up in bed together, though Gina has no idea why.
The ghost of Gina's mother throws a shadow over her life, too. She's 15 years dead, but her straight-laced and straight-faced ways are, Gina thinks, the reason why she herself is more of an unconventional free spirit - although not as free-spirited as Lara, her friend and neighbour who hosts a seance and calls Gina's mother to the proceedings. She's also not as free with her food consumption as her 20-stone, lifelong friend Joy, happily married but unhappily huge.
There's Dougie Spokes, her first date at 13 years of age. He now lives with his anarchic family on a local council estate and causes trouble for Gina's next-door-neighbour and one-time therapist, Leon, an Irishman who has lost his accent and embraces everything British until he's had a few drinks and starts singing rebel songs and longing for his mother's barmbrack.
Her older friend Moya, a motorbiking, decidedly-butch lesbian, has just been ditched by her longtime lover Jocasta and is quietly heartbroken.
A routine medical check-up reveals that Gina has cancer, requiring a hysterectomy and aggressive chemotherapy.
While her friends urge her to tell her daughter about her illness, Gina is reluctant to do so, anticipating an "I told you so" attitude, what with her unwise lifestyle choices. But with her health only improving in fits and starts, it becomes imperative that Susan be told. And it also becomes imperative that she speak to her neighbour, Leon - fast becoming a significant player in her life.
How she handles her illness is one thing, but how her surrounding circle of maniacs handle it is the meat and potatoes of this chaotic 'death where is thy sting' story.
Deadly serious but also great fun.
Sunday Indo Living