“Giving someone the truth when they don’t want it is a sort of emotional violence,” says Roopa Farooki. “It’s as much an act of aggression as shaking their hands in the Covid era.” She should know. When the pandemic first struck the NHS, the novelist – three times nominated for the Women’s prize for fiction – was also one of its most junior doctors, with barely six months of medicine under her belt.
The act of aggression to which she refers is not, however, pandemic-related. Everything Is True, her blistering new Covid memoir, begins in the wake of her sister’s death from breast cancer. When Farooki breaks down in tears at work on her sister’s birthday, she makes the fatal mistake, on being asked by a colleague if she is all right, of giving “an honest answer, like a psychopath”. Her disarming frankness about her dead sister sees the colleague practically sprinting off down the hospital corridor, leaving Farooki to observe wryly that she might as well have coughed in their face with her “snotty, messy tears”.
Defiant, uncompromising honesty drives every page of this book. With Do No Harm, retired neurosurgeon Henry Marsh set the trend for doctors confessing, with varying degrees of candour, their own psychological foibles and weaknesses. Yet none have been as ruthless as Farooki. If unwanted truth is emotional violence, then the act of reading her memoir is akin to a 12-round bout with Mike Tyson. Two hundred pages of hard, sinewy, unpalatable truth – the pandemic up close and thumpingly personal.
The book charts the first 40 days of the UK’s pandemic lockdown – a nod to the original definition of “quarantine” (quaranta in Italian) as being precisely this period of isolation to prevent the spread of contagious disease. But a brief prologue describes something even more cataclysmic: her sister, Kiron, telling her she has only weeks left to live. Farooki’s response – having been taught at medical school that nobody wants miserable people around them when they’re dying – is a rictus smile: “You’re still smiling like you can’t help it, you must look insane. You can’t help it, like a skin-stripped skull can’t help it.”
So begins her harrowing juxtaposition of sweeping, global catastrophe with the intensely personal ruination of grief. For Farooki, the onslaught of patients with Covid coincides with her immersion in “the sad fog, the painful aftermath” of her sister’s funeral. She already knows what it is like to outlive death, and finds herself sleepwalking numbly through the pandemic’s first days, scarcely noticing its unfolding horrors. “You have no idea what is happening … you’re only paying attention to what you’re feeling, to what you’re pushing six feet under, while you dig yourself out of bed and feed the children and march three miles to work and get on with your day.”
Grief, Farooki concludes, is the long shadow cast by love. It hurts just as much as it ought to
Farooki finds herself juggling pandemic trauma with domestic banality, Covid deathbed vigils with kitchen-table nit checks. Labouring by day just to put one foot in front of the other, at night she writes alone in a compulsive fury. Regularly falling asleep on top of her keyboard, she produces “fragments of words spat out on to the screen. Emotional vomit. Pollock on the page.” Too skilful a writer to permit incoherence to tarnish her finished manuscript, she chooses nevertheless to preserve something of the disjointed nature of these sessions. Her prose is as fractured as her frame of mind, and her decision to document her experiences in the second person mimics the weird, jarring quality of grief. If anything, the frenetic demands of the hospital are a form of unhealthy solace, allowing Farooki to erase herself completely for the length of each shift.
Slowly, numbness gives way to anger. Without realising it – and whether she likes it or not – she no longer works in an A&E but on a military “frontline”. The crass jingoism of journalists and politicians infuriates her. She is not a soldier, this is not a battle, and her patients most definitely do not live or die according to whether they possess a “fighting spirit”. Ironically invoking the unwanted martial imagery, she points out that she is “wrapped in scraps of plastic”, “taking the bullets without proper defence” and “fighting an insidious illness with … a paper mask”. Take that, Boris Johnson – or the “smug mop-headed bastard”, as she prefers to call him. Farooki knows it is predominantly the poor, vulnerable, Black and brown who are dying. So when the “mendacious middle-aged man” goes briefly to ICU for treatment, she is enraged that the country will be distracted by his live-tweeted progress, while the rest of the Covid dead are “buried like bad news”.
More than anyone else, though, Farooki reserves her scorn for herself. In painful, poignant dialogues with her dead sister, she lambasts herself for courting risk to gain the high moral ground: “Skydiving. Rock climbing. Bungee jumping. These never appealed to you, so why this? Maybe you like being humourless and pious about helping people. Maybe you have an unhealthy pride in risking your life for others.”
It is nonsense, of course. When a nursing colleague dies of Covid, Farooki finally feels fear. She finds her lack of PPE terrifying: “You’ll walk straight into the virus. You’ll soak it up in your hair like a sponge. You’re going to get it, too.” Sure enough, a month into lockdown, she contracts Covid. In her delirium, her sister’s voice attacks her: “For the record, I don’t think you’re a hero. I don’t think you’re brave. I think you’re a mildly talented eccentric who’s stumbled into a stupid time to start medicine.”
In the end – the 40th day – Farooki has recovered but death is all around her: “It’s everywhere, and the air is constantly crackling with the expired electricity of it. The sound of breaking hearts is deafening. The new figures today are 40,000.” We are forced to confront the bleakest truth that now there are legions of the newly bereaved, each, like her, enduring shattering pain.
Grief, Farooki concludes, is the long shadow cast by love. It hurts just as much as it ought to, as much as the deceased was loved. Beneath it all – the horror, the hypocrisy, the vertiginous death toll – Farooki is lonely. She simply and desperately misses her sister. Her memoir, a memorial of sorts, is startlingly honest and devastatingly good.
• Everything Is True by Roopa Farooki is published (Bloomsbury Publishing plc, £14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.