Rearranged: An Opera Singer’s Facial Cancer and Life Transposed by Kathleen Watt

By October 10, 2023Books, Public

Review by MJA member Richenda Power

Rearranged: An Opera Singer’s Facial Cancer and Life Transposed, by Kathleen Watt, has a great cover illustration, and lists subgenres of narrative and autoethnography. In reviewing the book, I thought of Jo Spence’s photographic record of and reflections on her process with breast cancer and heard Colm Tóibín, on BBC Radio 4, declaring he had not ‘learnt’ anything from his experience. In contrast to a one-time reticence to even say its name (‘tho “the big C” was stage-whispered), cancer narratives are now almost expected and have been claimed to be therapeutic in themselves. Perhaps this is so for Watt, who writes of experiences commencing in 1997 when an osteogenic sarcoma was detected in her jaw, when she was in the New York Metropolitan’s chorus.

Some of the 86 chapters are informative, suitable for readers wanting to know more about facial cancer, its treatment, potential ‘disfigurement’ and its implications. However, many more contain detailed personal stories involving family, friends and lovers, surgeons and other patients, which sometimes felt like too much information. It is not clear whether pseudonyms are used.

The writing style may attract particular readers as Watt provides a sense of performance: ‘On my gurney in pre-op, closing my eyes in a last lightheaded tumble toward the main stage at the end of the hall, the sensation felt viscerally familiar. This long moment suspended in teeming darkness, exquisitely alone, prepared, costumed, poised to go on, and no way not to. I had learned my part. I had placed every pitch. I had coached and rehearsed. I had done everything that was mine to do. There on my gurney in pre-op, I hovered between lights down and curtain up. I was ready.’

Medical terminology is mostly clearly explained, but I needed to look up US idioms and cultural references as well as several operatic terms. It was disappointing to find only a few illustrations just before ‘Book I’ (of ten), the ‘last head shot’ being taken before Watt’s first surgery.

The audience may be mainly USA-based rather than global, although a general curiosity in how an opera singer dealt with the anatomical rearrangement of her ‘singing apparatus’ could see the book selling elsewhere. It would be useful to have a list of helpful resources beyond the USA’s at the end, although Face Equality International’s contact details are provided.

Spending several weeks immersed in Rearranged changed my own response to disfigurement: I no longer look away after a momentary glance. It could be that the very vulnerability Watt conveys is her most important message.

Jo Spence: Putting Myself in the Picture: a Political, Personal and Photographic Autobiography. (1986)

Colm Tóibín

Book Details:

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Heliotrope Books LLC (October 10, 2023)
Language ‏ : ‎ English
Paperback ‏ : ‎ 384 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 195647434X
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1956474343

Find out more and buy the book

Sallie Robins

Author Sallie Robins

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