Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin

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Please Read this Leaflet Carefully’ is a life told in reverse. We begin in the present moment [2016] of Laura, our protagonist’s life – New York City, mid-thirties, a single mother and a body wracked with pain having been diagnosed with endometriosis in her twenties. From there we are taken backwards, travelling through Laura’s life to see her not only as a mother, but as a daughter, a wife and a teen [1995], each part fused with the pain she has felt ever since she was a child.

Pain truly is the plot, though that comes as no surprise when you consider that almost everything Laura encounters throughout her life is tinged with the streaks of her pain, from endometriosis, chronic illness to allergies – “I don’t know how my parents survived all those years when I was in and out of hospital as a child.” It’s a poignant piece that puts pain front and centre, women’s pain specifically. Laura’s gynaecologist informs her “Endometriosis is a bitch”, a bitch with no cure and no specific, one size fits all treatment. “We know what happens, but we don’t know the causes.

Pain is an ever present, though, thankfully, it is never wielded as metaphor. Havelin doesn’t present us, or her protagonist, with a pathway to some higher power or higher meaning. The pain does not become gentle poetry. Rather, the pain just is – all laid out bare. The book invites us to witness with open and exposed eyes. As our narrator tells us, “Perhaps I would have a better life if I could manufacture some meaning from it all. Through illness, you mostly just get screwed. You lose so much time, putting in full days or misery there is really no end to how bad it can get.” It’s a refreshingly honest take from a writer who has first-hand experience. You never doubt Havelin’s intensity, or the truth she bestows upon Laura. At times, the prose reads as biography. Whether it is isn’t for me to decide.

The decision to inverse chronological order allows for us to witness just how far Laura has come, as well and just how much she has to overcome to get there. To know the end and work towards the beginning is not necessarily a unique literary convention, but it certainly works well here. It makes you appreciate even more, the ambition Havelin bestows upon Laura to live her life as she should wish to live it, pain included. Laura is human. And I say that not as an obvious statement, but as a compliment to Havelin’s writing. In novels which deal with similar circumstances, there can be a tendency to shape the protagonist as an ineffable sort of super-human – or perhaps, super-woman. A one-dimensional character who only ever achieves despite all that holds them back. Laura is angry, frustrated, loving, joyful, confused and driven, all in one go. She fails and she doesn’t. The world clearly isn’t built for her, and her navigation through it reflects that. Relationships fall apart – familial and romantic, and we see Laura explore what it means to rely on someone, and what it means to fend for herself. She is committed to go it alone, if she must – “I never want to need anyone ever again. My life is limited.” It’s a noble cause. And, in fairness to such a choice, you cannot truly blame her. There is no doubt that the world, and those pain-free around her, have no idea what it is like to live as Laura does.

Havelin’s writing is bold, vivid and avoids cliché. At times it can appear repetitive, but then again, so is Laura’s pain. Throughout the book extracts of various ice-skating moves are littered between expressive passages. I’m not entirely sure they work, or quite the meaning of them. Laura was once an ice-skater, but it’s not enough, I don’t think, to warrant the inclusion.

Yet, despite that, ‘Please Read this Leaflet Carefully’ is a moving, poignant read about self-acceptance and what it is to live in bouts of agony. It’s an important one too. Rarely do we hear of others pain – we live in a world where we don’t want to – where it is not our problem but another’s. Havelin confronts us with it head on. You cannot turn away.

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully is published by Dead Ink and is available here.

Karen Havelin

Karen Havelin is a writer and translator from Bergen, Norway. She attended Skrivekunst-akademiet i Hordaland, and has a Bachelor’s degree in French, Literature, and Gender Studies from the University of Bergen and University of Paris Sorbonne. She completed her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University in May 2013. Her work has been published both in Norwegian and in English. Her first novel, Please Read This Leaflet Carefully was published simultaneously in the US, the UK and Norway in spring 2019, from Dottir Press, Dead Ink Books and Cappelen Damm (norsk tittel Les pakningsvedlegget nøye).

Author photo by Anna-Julia Granberg, Blunderbuss

Review by Emily Harrison

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