Everything is True
Two thousand years ago, a Roman provincial governor asked a question that still haunts us today. Haunts us, indeed, these days more than ever: “What is truth?
It’s all true, says Roopa Farooki in this searing memoir about frontline NHS work during the early days of the pandemic. Indeed, Farooki repeats it many times, and when a phrase appears in a book’s title, epigraph, and closing sentence, you get the sense that the author wants you to take notice.
But first: yes, this book is about Covid. You might be thinking: would I rather have Covid than read another scorching version of Covid? You may also be thinking: should another doctor really pick up the pen? You might even be thinking: should I still read this review?
Well, in the opinion of this pen doctor, Dr. Farooki can write for a long time, if she continues to write like this: “Her little body is wrapped as a gift for God, in a virgin white cloth, wrapped and buried under large clots of mud. ” This sentence – so crisp, clear, precise – appears in the first pages of a heartbreaking prologue on the death of Farooki’s sister a few weeks before the announcement of the pandemic. It is an accurate omen of the quality of writing to come.
That death bows out so early in a pandemic memoir is perhaps unsurprising. As Farooki would later write, “Death is everywhere. They are everywhere, and the air constantly crackles with its exhaled electricity. It’s perhaps unsurprising, but it’s a consolation that in Farooki’s hands, death and grief will be dealt with straight away and without flinching.
We remember another prologue, Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem, in which a mother abandoned by Stalinist terror asks the poet: “’Can you describe that?’/ And I said:/ ‘I can. ‘ on what had been his face.
Farooki structures his memoirs as an almost epistolary account of the first 40 days of the first confinement. The narrative speaks to itself and presents itself as contemporary, through 24 chapters that vary in length and depth. She proves to be an insightful and entertaining guide, and though the tone becomes increasingly political and polemical, her observations are spiced up with an appealing mix of wit, self-awareness, and moral seriousness:
“It’s day 20 of lockdown, and you can’t understand the lack of anger. . . You don’t understand how 10,000 dead isn’t written everywhere in big blood red letters . . . The internet is more interested in Priti Patel’s eyebrows than at her mistakes. They ask, ‘How did she manage to do them so well during lockdown?’You want to ask, ‘How come she can’t count?’
The political angle of the memoir is the easiest to grasp. Farooki is a stark reminder of how the fears and risks facing frontline workers have been exacerbated by government incompetence and bureaucratic callousness. PPE shortages, inappropriate redeployments to understaffed intensive care units, unnecessary patient deaths and (disproportionately BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic]) health care workers are all present. And then: “they say that the 56-hour week is not unacceptable. This weasel double negative. This will all sound familiar to anyone who has worked in HSE all too often crazy.
It’s hard not to side with Farooki feeling humorless about a situation/society where “the 1% obligingly shrug their shoulders and die, as if it’s rude to do otherwise, because they don’t does not want to be a pressure on the health services”.
Now, if a whistleblowing expose was Farooki’s only angle, then these memoirs and his recurring refrain that “It’s all true” could be neatly labeled “justifiable outrage” and filed away in the “post-truth politics” drawer of our brains. for when some Covidiot waves the word “hoax”. But that’s not the only angle. Some of the most interesting and emotional moments in memoir are the sweetest, happening behind the scenes as the diva bug monstrously takes center stage.
Take, for example, the precious light that Farooki sheds on the struggles of maintaining esprit de corps on the home front, with household chores “scattered and reformed and never finished” and worrying about feeding her four children sticks. fish when she is not worried about infecting them. (Maybe Mondays should have been Clap for Our Mothers? Maybe it should still be?) And despite all the fear and drama on the front line, Farooki’s charged previews of a wedding under tension leave some of the deepest marks.
The last thing to say about this memoir is that it’s haunted. Without saying too much, this haunting opens up something within Farooki and leads to true insight into love, heartbreak, and what really matters. It is suspected that the reader, too, may be unexpectedly moved by a transference of this liminal energy; maybe that’s the price of admission to a crackling book of ‘stale electricity’.
“The sound of broken hearts is deafening,” Farooki writes. The real distinction of this memoir is how it transmutes that singular sound into something our ears can bear to hear, something we need to hear, into song. The chorus ? “Everything matters. Everything is true.