Sanatorium by Abi Palmer

I was lured in by this wonderfully surreal depiction of four weeks spent at a rehabilitation centre in Budapest by a writer living with physical disabilities in a queer body.
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The cover of 'Sanatorium' by Abi Palmer

Sanatorium describes, in ways that are at times wonderfully surreal, a period of four weeks that the author Abi Palmer spent at a rehabilitation centre in Budapest.

Palmer lives with arthritis and connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and the book weaves accounts of the therapies she undergoes in Budapest to help strengthen her muscles and ease her pain, with poignant excerpts from her life at home in London, and growing up in Chertsey.

Abi Palmer’s book immediately swallowed me up

I opened this book and was immediately swallowed up by it. Palmer’s voice lured me in and I was immersed in this world of visions and sensations, of the body and out of it.

Living with complex physical disabilities in a queer body, Sanatorium tracks Palmer’s four-week stay at a rehabilitation centre in Budapest – four weeks filled with sulphurous pools, exercise and massage. Palmer’s voice is a relatable one and there is a clarity of thought as well as space to wander and lose all sense of where and who she is.

The book drifts between physical states with the lyrical passages of submersion and flotation. The author describes regular experiences of feeling outside of her body, of floating, of sinking, and of grappling with her own physicality. The states of physical and metaphysical are so well drawn, they capture an essence of what it can be like to not be of this world while your body is firmly under the influence of gravity.

The context of ‘Sanatorium’

After Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay, Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and after a year of publications that include Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations and Anne Bayer’s Undying, Sanatorium adds to this beautiful and poignant collection of women writing their experience of their bodies in raw, poetic and unapologetic forms. They are, as well as being captivating and brilliantly readable, also allowing us to begin to rewrite the narrative for women who experience chronic illness and disability, of what it is like to live in our bodies.

One section that captures so much of the experience of these strange and complex conditions is held so much in this short excerpt:

I’m doing all this exercise, but I have all these underlying fears. Am I making the right decisions? Am I being given the right advice? You go through life as a chronically ill person with so many different people who have so many different opinions about how your treatment should be. They’re not always useful or right. You have to build your own narrative and your own sense of what feels appropriate. You have to learn to trust your body to tell you what’s working. But that’s hard too, when your body keeps changing the rules.”

Would I recommend this to other spoonies?

Yes. This is a timely and pertinent publication.

In coming to the end of the book I am left with a heightened sensory awareness of things that appear in fragments: the hardness of the kitchen floor pooled with water, the smell of the sulphurous pool, the sounds of the orchestra, and the tastes of the buffet in the dining room. They are as real and peculiar as anything Palmer experiences. This is a beautifully constructed book full of important thoughts, lyrical poetry and prose, and stunning imagery that immerses the reader entirely.


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