The Iceberg by Marion Coutts

An artist reflects in a variety of ways on the end of her writer husband’s life.


Tom Lubbock was an art critic for the Independent and the father of an 18-month-old boy, when he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008. In The Iceberg, his wife, Marion Coutts, a versatile and prolific artist and writer, recalls his final years. The resulting memoir is musing, lyrical, ambling and sometimes digressive. The range of emotions she expresses is startling and real.

Coutts begins with “a diagnosis that has the status of an event” as she introduces her husband and their son, Ev. Tom works with words and concepts, meticulously and thoughtfully constructing the writings that are his livelihood and passion. When he has a seizure, a tumor is discovered in the speech and language part of his brain: Tom and Marion must reinvent communication. They practice and make lists: of names of friends, of ideas for outings, of opposing word pairs (big/small, light/heavy). They play a game of yes/no questions when Tom has something to discuss: Is it about your work? Is it about us? Is it food or clothing? These coping mechanisms are an interesting intellectual exercise, but are also central to this family’s experiences. Coutts writes: “I have lost the second consciousness that powers mine. Lost my sounding board, my echo, my check, my stop and finisher. I am down to one.”

The Iceberg neatly captures the events of diagnosis and death, with a stark attention to what comes in between, and little reference to the rest of life. Tom’s medical conditions are described with varying levels of detail, as Coutts often has only a vague understanding of them. Her encounters with the British National Health Service are frequently frustrating. These physical realities are less than central, however. The Iceberg is a forthright emotional account, often celebratory, even exultant: Tom especially often finds joy late in his life. Of course, Coutts is also destitute, bereft, undone. Such feelings alternate with a cerebral, even detached perspective. These jarring intersections are at the center of her story. She writes unflinchingly of her short temper with Ev, and occasionally with Tom; she relates both anguish and resolve, resignation and anger, often with a striking sense of remove. “There is going to be destruction: the obliteration of a person, his intellect, his experience and his agency. I am to watch it. This is my part.” Or of sitting at his deathbed: “I love being in position here. It is perfectly correct.”

Coutts’s prose is layered, textured, dense with meaning and interjected with brief e-mails to loved ones about Tom’s status along the way. As a consideration of art, life, death and love, the full impact of The Iceberg is deeply moving and intelligent, a worthy elegy.

This review originally ran in the January 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 words.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: