Arifa Akbar’s older sister Fauzia died unexpectedly of tuberculosis at the age of 43. In her first book, the Guardian’s chief theatre critic painstakingly traces her complicated but loving relationship with her sibling. She also seeks to uncover how it was possible that someone could die of undetected TB while being treated in a modern hospital in the UK. It remains “the greatest infectious killer in history,” and—alarmingly—in 2015 she discovers that TB rates in Britain were higher than those in Rwanda, Eritrea and Iraq.
Akbar also explores her complicated family dynamics with candour, including the contempt with which her father often treated Fauzia when she was a child. Their parents were an ill-matched couple and often rowed. This was made worse when the family returned from a brief period living in Lahore, and moved to a single room squat in Hampstead which had neither hot water nor heating.
While Akbar’s meticulously written memoir is often heartbreaking—there are passages that will move you to tears—it is never maudlin. The author shows great courage in rigorously examining how her own behaviour towards her sister might have impinged on Fauzia, who had a long history of eating disorders and poor mental health. She examines depictions of death and dying in art—in the operas La bohème and La Traviata, in the letters of Keats and in the paintings of Edvard Munch—but is also alive to the grubby practicalities of grief. At Fauzia’s funeral, Akbar panics that there will not be enough people to carry her sister’s body through the pouring rain when suddenly her brother’s childhood friends—now grown men—appear on the scene to bear the coffin.
Akbar reveals the way in which grief can distort our memories of a person by, for example, contrasting her recollections of her sister’s artwork with what it is actually like. Ultimately, Akbar realises Fauzia’s dream by arranging a posthumous exhibition of the accomplished embroidery she left behind after her death. Her book stands as a testament to familial love precisely because she is brave enough to explore how it can be entangled with its opposite.
Consumed: A Sister’s Story by Arifa Akbar (Sceptre, £16.99)