Book Review: Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill

Book Review: Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill

Blood: The Stuff of LifeTitle: Blood: The Stuff of Life
Author: Lawrence Hill
Publisher: House of Anansi
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

A few weeks ago I was in the hospital waiting for a doctor to examine my stomach and declare with authority why it was hurting so damn much. It was a Saturday night and no walk-in clinics were open, so my husband and I took the bus to the closest ER. Part of the triage involved giving a blood sample, so I did my standard routine when it came time for the nurse to stick me with the needle, which goes something like this:

  1. Don’t look. Look as far away in the opposite direction of the blood-giving arm as you can.
  2. Make noise, or focus on existing noise, so as to avoid hearing the small suctiony sound of your blood going into the vial. (Don’t scoff. You really can hear your blood entering the vial if the room is small enough. It is not pleasant.)
  3. Mentally count off the clicks you hear as each full vial is switched out for an empty one.
  4. Wait for the sensation of the needle being withdrawn, and breathe a sigh of relief.

Except this time, #4 took an awful long time in coming. The nurse asked one of her colleagues, “Do we need 2 vials or  3?” and just sat there waiting. The needle was still in my arm. Where was the blood going? Would it fountain up out of the needle end?

When the nurse got her answer and took the final vial of blood away, she also tossed a small flexible tube into a biohazard container. It was clear, and full of my blood. “Oh, it’s okay,” she said, “it’s just a teaspoonful.”

I felt slightly sick at the thought. And thus did I realize that I needed to take Blood by Lawrence Hill off the TBR pile and read it post-haste.

Blood is the latest installment in the CBC’s Massey Lectures, and it’s about as far away as one can get from the previous year’s subject matter by Neil Turok. Blood is a substance that is both physically and socially complex, and Hill does his utmost to examine each of the social and physical realities surrounding it: race, vampirism, menstruation, religion, identity, transfusions, sports scandals and doping, disease, citizenship, murder, vengeance, and more.

It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off, to marry the scientific and the sociological like that. And while Hill does do an adequate job of balancing on that tightrope, there are more than a few places where he slips and falls.

I think this is most apparent in the prose style itself. Blood is a topic full of nuance, but Hill’s writing is so portentous and repetitive that it feels like he’s struggling under sheer mythic weight of the thing he’s writing about. Here’s an example of what I mean:

It’s an awfully seductive fluid. When it leaves the body, it’s a big deal. People might die. People might be accused of attempted murder, or worse. Even when it is supposed to spill – think of menstrual blood, for example, or of the blood from the broken hymen of a virgin on a wedding night that unfolds according to all the ancient rules – it has power and significance. Maybe it is impure. Maybe it could damage you. Maybe that menstrual blood could spoil food or rob a man of his hunting power. Or maybe it is the blood of the virgin, suggestive of innocence and protection. In addition, blood acquires holy significance in the world’s pre-eminent religions. Christians consider Christ’s blood to be sacred, and imagine that they drink of it when they lift the cup of holy wine to their lips. Judaism and Islam have intricate rules about how animals are to be bled and how blood must be absent from food.

I didn’t really put my finger on what bothered me so much about his style of writing until I typed the above excerpt out. Forget the fact that he bounces around madly from murder to menstruation to sex to religion and back again. Focus instead on the digressions he makes, and the way he describes things. It can’t just be “blood from a woman’s wedding night,” but “blood from the broken hymen of a virgin on a wedding night that unfolds according to all the ancient rules.” It can’t just be “wine”, but “holy wine”, as if you’d use any other kind in a church and instead just go down to the corner store for a medium-bodied red to use for the Eucharist.

In other words, his writing doesn’t let the topic speak for itself. It spells things out to a painful degree, and in the process, fetishizes something that has already been fetishized enough. Considering that this book’s goal is to unpack a lot of the unspoken assumptions behind the idea of blood, we need less of this mystic attitude, not more.

I’m conflicted about this book in other ways as well, as there was at least one glaring factual error that I found (in the section about Harry Potter, oddly enough – aren’t there any editors at House of Anansi who have read the series?), and some truly dismissive attitudes about adolescent depression and self-cutting, such as this little gem:

Just as many young people are drawn to vampire culture, many are also drawn to cutting themselves as form of controlled self-abuse. Experts theorize that cutting among young girls is not generally the expression of suicidal impulses, but rather a way of managing pain and anxiety. The vampiric seduction is a private act, as is the act of drawing out one’s blood. People tend to get over their vampiric obsessions as they emerge from adolescence, as do most girls who have been drawn to cutting.

The vampiric attack is irreversible. Once you’ve gone over to the dark side, there is no coming back. You do get to live forever, but no longer as a human. Cutting, however, allows for more control. Who will see the marks, which you can cover up with clothing? How seriously are you to be hurt, by losing a little blood? For some, perhaps, cutting focuses one’s pain in the body, instead of in the psyche. But it is temporary. And most adolescents grow out of it.

Is this for real? “Oh, cutting isn’t that serious, it’s just an adolescent phase. How much harm can it do, anyway?” I doubt that it’s a coincidence that this passage comes right on the heels of a discussion about the Twilight series. Gee, I wonder which major demographic most commonly cuts themselves? And does there happen to be any overlap between that demographic and the demographic responsible for making Twilight a runaway success? Ah well, never mind. Those things are just phases. Let’s give them a cursory discussion just to say we talked about it and move on.

The more I think about this book and what it chose to focus on versus what it chose to skim, the more frustrated I get. And it makes me sad, because in many ways, Blood‘s observations about identity and race are trenchant and well-thought-out (which shouldn’t be a surprise, given Hill’s own ancestry). But it’s missteps like those above that get my blood boiling.

Up next: The Troop by Nick Cutter