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The Iceberg: A Memoir, By Marion Coutts, book review: A horrible story, told bravely and beautifully


The Iceberg is, essentially, an account of a death and yet it is much more than that. It is an exquisitely expressed portrait of three lives operating in the shadow of catastrophe. Marion Coutts was the partner of Tom Lubbock, who was The Independent’s art critic for 13 years. After experiencing a fit late in 2008, he was found to have a cancerous tumour on his brain.

He was operated on twice and underwent chemotherapy, though each time it returned with greater aggression. It eventually overtook Lubbock’s speech and grasp of language, the very thing through which he made a living, though not before he had written his own book, Until Further Notice, I Am Alive, about his relationship with words and mortality.

Coutts’s book is a different proposition, detailing the two-year period from the day on which the news is delivered (“Conflagration: my ship is exploded. A fireball.”) to her husband’s death in 2011 (“You have moved through us and now you are gone, leaving us standing”).

Crucially, it tells of illness and decline through the eyes of a partner, whose viewpoint is simultaneously that of insider and outsider. Grief hovers but must be held at bay. Emotions are scrutinised and set aside. An artist, writer, and mother, Coutts finds herself recast as carer, organiser, and interpreter. She details these roles in a language that is as vivid as it is poetic.

Coutts and Lubbock do their utmost to live life as fully as circumstances allow (she resolves not to let him be destroyed before his death, nor to let their young son, Ev, be destroyed after it). Thus, they go on holiday, see friends, visit galleries, walk in parks. Round robin emails are sent requesting phone calls, invitations, visits and, where possible, food.

Friends repeatedly marvel at Coutts’s ability to cope, though the cracks in the carapace sporadically break open. Her bowels give out suddenly. Invisible needles prick her skin. Tears arrive unexpectedly, often in public, and prove impossible to stem. On one occasion Ev is found crouching, tortoise-like, under a chair as his mother rages around the house. Such ferocious outbursts, though understandable, are shockingly drawn, and it’s a measure of Coutts’s frankness that they don’t portray her kindly.

Meanwhile, as Ev’s vocabulary expands, his father’s shrinks. “Great chunks of speech are collapsing,” notes Coutts. “Holes are appearing. Avenues crumble and sudden roadblocks halt the journey from one part of consciousness to the other.” The couple are presented with extraordinary verbal challenges, with sentences assembled through a combination of familiarity, repetition, and deduction. Their oddball methods of communication towards the end bring a remarkable romance and togetherness to this otherwise desperate narrative.

The Iceberg is a book about death, certainly, but it’s also about survival. The miracle here is not only in Coutts coming through such an ordeal, but in finding the wherewithal to observe it, unpick its complex psychology, and commit it to paper. This is human trauma, profoundly and beautifully told.