Jo Ann Beard – Cheri (2023)

An elegant yet devastating novella in which Beard, somehow, makes the weight of it all feel bearable.

Jo Ann Beard – Cheri (2023)

February 2024 • Fiction

“In a way, I borrowed the stories and then tried to infuse them with metaphorical meaning. I wanted to experience, as a writer, what happens when you get all the way to your moment of death and then don’t die. Or in the case of Cheri, what happens on the march towards, and through, your own certain death.”
— Jo Ann Beard (The Guardian, 2023)

I am prone to finding and reading books that relate closely to difficult occurrences in my own life, which often gives me a certain sense of discomfort. I don’t think I seek these books out on the shelves of stores or libraries, necessarily — I am not a literary masochist — but they cross my path at key moments, as if someone placed them there for me to happen upon, and I plunge into them with conviction. I always feel the discomfort they provide is a necessary evil for me to experience, for me to learn from and to grow, and I get the sense that avoiding that discomfort is akin to burying my head in the sand, which I prefer not to do — perhaps I am a literary masochist, after all.

Enter Cheri, released as a 74-page novella by Serpent's Tail, and simultaneously as part of The Collected Works of Jo Ann Beard who, according to The Times, is “the literary world’s best kept secret”.

The title of the book refers to Cheri Tremble, who died of cancer assisted by Jack Kevorkian, an advocate of euthanasia tried for murder on four occasions. The slim book is “a combination of fiction and memory”, as Beard attempts to imagine Cheri’s thoughts, memories and experiences in the weeks leading up to her death.

In doing so, she succeeds masterfully — I was completely in awe. Expertly folding and bending language, she chooses her words carefully: a tumour is “a dreamy smear on the X-ray”; when describing metastasised cancer, the spine is “caught and held by the shadowy fingers of the monster”; the pain she experiences “has a sharp, glittering realness to it, like a diamond lodged in her hip”.

The subject matter weighs a ton, but she gets it across with such brevity, clarity and creativity that, yes, I imagined the horrors of the sickbed and the pain and the scars and the setbacks, but I also smiled at a life well lived, felt the warmth and appreciation of a good day, the trees on her street “vibrating in the afternoon sun light”, and how, on days like those, “the landscape can levitate with color”. Somehow, she makes the weight of it all feel bearable, sunlight glistening between her lines.

Elegant, yet devastating. Moving, but cathartic. As Anne Enright noted on Jo Ann Beard's writing in The Guardian: “you should read her and not look away”.

Cheri by Jo Ann Beard
Published by Serpent’s Tail in 2023

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