Book Content Warning: medical trauma, chronic pain, substance abuse, mild violence
Article Content Warning: chronic pain
“I used to cry. That was back when I thought tests led to something. A diagnosis that led to a plan, a cure. But tests, I know now, never lead us anywhere. Tests are dark roads with no destination, leading to more dark.”— Mona Awad, All’s Well
Mona Awad’s newest horror release, All’s Well, is a masterpiece of Shakespearean hyperbolic metaphor.
Miranda Fitch is a twenty-five-year-old theatre professor from Boston, and she’s not entirely sure she’s competent enough to do her job. Even though she doesn’t have a PhD in Theatre—like her judgmental colleague, Grace—she does have ten years of acting experience. Surely it is enough to be entirely responsible for their small New England college’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well?
What further “disqualifies” Miranda from experiencing a normal life is that she lives with excruciating daily chronic pain from a horrific stage injury, resulting in her premature retirement from acting.
Facing a mutiny from her students who would rather put on The Scottish Play, Miranda feels as if she has lost control of virtually everything in her life—her body, her career, and now the future of the theatre department.
One night as Miranda sulks at a local pub, resigned to her misfortune, she is approached by three ominous men who somehow know everything about her. A series of peculiar events transpire and Miranda wakes up the next morning seemingly lifted of her burden of pain. As Miranda—now filled with seemingly unreplenishable energy—lives free from every ache and pain, her student-nemesis Briana has mysteriously fallen extremely sick.
As a fellow chronic-pain sufferer, I felt a deep camaraderie with Miranda, but I also feared her to my very core—and I felt weirdly addicted to this feeling.
Most would call Awad’s particular writing style—as exhibited in her first two published novels 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl and Bunny—an acquired taste. This could be in part a product of the fact that Awad’s two most recent titles are categorised under Horror on Goodreads. This placement inevitably attracts fans of traditional horror—those expecting similarities to juggernauts such as Stephen King and Peter Straub—who may not be accustomed to Awad’s non-traditional horror. As these more mainstream writers tend to focus on showing readers the horror, creating an atmosphere for the reader to situate their terror, Awad’s stream-of-consciousness horror is grounded inside Miranda’s psyche.
That being said, I loved Awad’s writing style in this novel. I previously read her novel Bunny because it was frequently compared to the classic film Heathers, but it just didn’t work for me. I feel that Awad’s writing style is more effective in All’s Well because it is told from one singular perspective whereas Bunny is told in the third person.
Awad’s stream-of-consciousness narrative takes place entirely inside Miranda’s head which made me feel as if I was almost trapped inside the head of an unreliable narrator. During these instances I was left guessing at what was even happening, which only added to the unsettling atmosphere: “Nothing beats its black wings in me. My heart doesn’t pound. Indeed, the place where my heart is is deliriously open as a field, light as air.”
Notably, Bunny and All’s Well in particular are purely dark humor, which can understandably leave a sour taste in some reader’s mouths. Inside Miranda’s head we have no choice but to laugh along with her at her gruesome suffering. As Miranda spends most of the novel having flashbacks to various incidents in her life as a young woman suffering from “undiagnosable” chronic pain, you begin to wonder if her memories are being embellished as a result of the novel. I couldn’t help but cringe at the all-too-real imagery of her lived trauma. Miranda’s pain was simultaneously terrifying and complete Shakespearean satire, and I didn’t know whether to take delight in her carefree euphoria or recoil in horror.
The best part was how laughably relatable Miranda’s entire existence was for me. More than once Miranda’s flashbacks and medical anecdotes mirrored nearly identical incidents in my disabled life, exact conversations I’d had with medical professionals or friends at one point or another. She embodies the pain and suppression that women who live with chronic pain and debilitating illnesses endure every day.
Miranda and I share not only a Shakespearan-derived name (my middle name) and a connection through our unruly bodies, but also a propensity to completely write off horrific bodily abnormalities and daily persistent pain that “normal” people tend to gasp at.
It’s fine, I don’t have time to go to the hospital.
Miranda, like me, willfully bats her eyelashes at the sight of bone through skin and goes on with her rehearsal unperturbed. Miranda and I both know to hide pain; we both consume vices with discretion to ease the pain, suffering in silence to make it easier on everyone else.
As my mantra is “life is full of minor inconveniences,” Miranda’s own version of the “I’m fine” charade is, copacetically, “All’s well.”
Miranda spoke the language of the chronically suffering, immediately speaking to me as a reader. Whenever Miranda was asked “how’s your pain?” or anything to that effect, I found myself answering with her in her own refrain: “All’s well.” Suppressed and doused with pain, she was never a fictional character as much as she was a real person I could relate to, which I so rarely see represented in the media.
And for that, Miranda, Awad, and All’s Well gets five stars.
Mona Awad is the author of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and winner of the Amazon Canada First Novel Award and Bunny, named a Best Book of 2019 by Time, Vogue, and The New York Public Library, a finalist for the New England Book Award, and currently in development as an AMC series written by Megan Mostyn-Brown. She has published work in The New York Times Magazine, Time, VICE, Electric Literature, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. She begins teaching fiction fall 2020 in the MFA program at Syracuse. Awad currently lives in Boston.
All’s Well can be purchased here.