Venice is the only place in Italy I’ve been to–unless the countryside scudding along outside the train window counts–and it’s a city that straddles so many realities. With a foot on land and one in the ocean, it’s physically an in-between city; with its car-less streets and ancient architecture, it’s a place that allows you to forget for periods of time just what year it is.
Venice is also a place of surprises. I remember spending an afternoon browsing the museum above the Piazza San Marco only to step outside to find that the piazza had silently flooded while I had been poring over sketches and garments. I remember waiting patiently, along with a growing crowd of pedestrians, at the foot of a bridge for a local boy to take a photo of another…only to realise that they were deliberately holding us up as part of some simple, beautifully pointed prank. I remember becoming utterly lost in the messy capillaries of the city many times before finally finding the well-worn pedestrian artery that would take me from one end to the other without happening upon the architectural equivalent of a blood clot.
Sadly, while I, having time on my side, always had the option to turn back, things were very different for Ruth Cracknell and her husband Eric. Having arrived in Venice with the expectation of spending a lengthy, languid holiday together, the two find themselves very quickly in a devastating in-between place of their own: Eric suffers from nosebleed that shows no sign of abating; his condition worsens, and he suffers a stroke.
What follows is Ruth’s moving, harried journal of attempting to come to terms with the sudden shift in her husband’s health, an account that is a painful mix of personal reflection and clear-minded logistics. Serious illness is difficult enough to navigate in a familiar context–it brings with it demands of time, and emotions, and language–but illness in a foreign city, and especially one like Venice, is an experience of endless unknowns.
Eric is stoic, doge-like throughout the ordeal, as Ruth and the others attempt to do what is necessary to stabilise him enough that he can be returned home to Australia. But the journey of the title is twofold: it doesn’t just refer to the escape from Venice, but also the journey that Ruth and Eric and their family face upon their return to Australia, when Eric is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
The following account is tremendously moving, a blend of scrappy, ellipsis-filled journal entries that read almost like gasps for breath between tears, and latterly inserted vignettes that bring with them the quiet ache that comes with time, and the book unfolds as we know it will, a slow, surprisingly beautiful journal of Eric’s last days. Like the city of Venice, it keeps a foot in both past and present, travelling back to the early days of the couple’s relationship and contrasting these with the present.
But unlike Venice, the story of Ruth and Eric slowly emerges from its sense of between-ness, shifting out of the marshy mists and continuing onwards…embarking, perhaps, with the guiding rudder of Ruth’s good-natured, warm, prose, across the sparkling sea…
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Other books by Ruth Cracknell: