A demon banished

Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure is a miraculous memoir — both a compendium of learning lightly worn and a record of her recovery from anorexia

Daniel Johnson

Laura Freeman’s (Weidenfeld, £16.99) is a miraculous memoir — doubly so, as a compendium of learning lightly worn and as a rare record of her return from the valley of death that is anorexia. Why so rare? Not only do one in ten with this condition die of starvation, but the survivors are usually too haunted by fear of a relapse to even think of describing it.

Laura knows what it is like to relapse: “I was thirteen when it started . . . Now, at thirty, I am an almost trencherman. Not quite there, but trying.” Almost uniquely among her fellow-sufferers, she has found the courage to expose her ordeal to public scrutiny, to describe with searing honesty the horror of hearkening to the ghoulish call of the anorexia demon. She calls it the Jabberwock.

Full disclosure: the author has been a regular contributor to Standpoint for five years, since the days when she worked on the Daily Mail features desk, but had yet to find her own voice as a writer. Her book is about reading, but writing it has, she says, been cathartic. I am proud that this magazine was the launching pad for a journalistic and literary career of great promise.

First, though, she had to overcome the hunger that had reduced her to skeletal, indeed spectral emaciation, overshadowing school, university and working life. The only medicines that worked were books. Laura recounts her tortuous recovery: morsel by morsel, meal by meal, writer by writer — the guardian angels who have enabled her to eat again.    

The story she tells is as much about language as about food: the voluptuous vocabularies of Dickens and Hardy, the war poets, M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David. It is about the power of words to conjure up worlds. Like many anorexics she is an inveterate walker, especially at night, but her journeys gradually cease to be punishments and become epiphanies instead. Too malnourished to travel except in her mind’s eye, she explores ever more exotic and extravagant cuisines in the hope of extending her meagre diet. But she curses the “clean eating” craze that set her back years by reviving the voice of self-denial.

Virginia Woolf proves to be a particular heroine. Whether or not she too was anorexic, as some scholars believe, she was at times very mad indeed and of course it killed her in the end. But it is after reading Woolf (and leaving her job to go freelance) that Laura finds happiness one day walking in Kensington Gardens: not just the vicarious kind, but a quiet bliss that is all her own.

Anyone who has encountered anorexia, either first hand or in someone they love, will recognise this harrowing yet heartening self-portrait. The Reading Cure is a book for the bookish, for those hungry for self-knowledge, or for those who are just hungry.

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