Book Review – Kind Chemist Wife: Musings at 3 a.m., by Sarah Bigham

April, 2020
Katrina Agbayani, Associate Editor
Sarah Bigham begins her impressive collection, Kind Chemist Wife: Musings at 3 a.m, with the poem “Gettysburg” — an excavation of memory as much as it is an examination of it. The poem closes with the lines “Beauty / or not?” — a fitting description of the collection as a whole: equal parts witty and wise, breezy and poignant. It’s a collection that focuses not only on life’s snapshot, shiny moments but on the kind of invasive memories that plague us in the early morning hours. 
One of the strengths of Bigham’s collection, composed of personal essays and poetry, is the persistent compassion. Much like a memoir, the bulk of the essays — many of them short, vignette-like — are focussed on Bigham’s own experiences. From them, shards of wisdom are extrapolated, as are portraits of Bigham’s loved ones, students, strangers met in passing, all rendered with an almost-tangible kindness. In “The Drill,” Bigham ruminates on the ways in which pain and trauma operate in the body, producing the stunning insight that “[our] bodies remember pain, […] even when our retrievable memories have purged it.” And yet, one of the main takeaways from that essay is the image of Bigham’s parents that she conjures lovingly, deftly. In “Calling Out,” the breezy description of a seemingly carefree summer job at a call centre is juxtaposed with Bigham’s unanticipated phone call with a widower. The portrait of her wife cooking dinner, taking the time to alter the dish to Bigham’s preference in “Unexpected Blessings,” depicts a tenderness so deep it appears ordinary, instinctual. Bigham is an expert in collecting these moments — these snapshots of genuine humanity — and compels us to find them in our own lives too. 

An undercurrent of pain nevertheless exists throughout Kind Chemist Wife. In “Showing Up,” Bigham describes a particularly painful bone marrow donation, polishing this experience into a message of the strength of community and (again) of compassion. “What They Said,” serves as its contrast as Bigham details the resulting chronic pain that affects her for the rest of her life. Moments of pain are consistently contrasted by funny anecdotes: mishaps involving bagpipes, polaroids, and professors brought genuine laughs in “Exiting Higher Education.” 

The vignette-like style of many of the works provide a nice brevity to a long collection, however longer essays do allow Bigham to tackle more hefty subjects — sometimes at a cost. “Our Better Angels” and “Airport Connections, in Hindsight” discuss the ways in which Bigham relates to others and the dignities we give and receive through such relations. Both contain well-meaning but somewhat derivative commentary on Bigham’s own confrontation with racial bias and racism as a white woman, and yet I cannot overlook a particularly exoticized description of a man of colour in “Airport Connections, in Hindsight.” Certain comparisons were cheap and unneeded, even if just used to describe how much Bigham has grown in relation to that moment. While Bigham accepts accountability for this previous attitude, it felt lukewarm. White people do not need to self-flagellate in their reckoning of race relations, but if they are going to insert themselves in that conversation then depth and nuance beyond guilt is necessary. In this regard, Bigham dedicates herself to do better and I not only agree but look forward to it. 

Throughout the experience of reading Kind Chemist Wife, I couldn’t turn away from the central messages of compassion — for others as well as for yourself — and vulnerability. Bigham’s depiction of her journey with chronic pain in the last third of the collection is honest and vulnerable: a lesson on how to continue opening yourself up to the possibilities of life, no matter the hand it has dealt you. Even moments of anger and despair are shrouded in warmth — for herself, for others, for a world that gives as much as it takes. Reading Kind Chemist Wife: Musings at 3 a.m. feels much like being awake at that ungodly hour, memories turning over and over in the mind: your life is at once beautiful and not, but it is yours. There is power in that, and Sarah Bigham wants you to know it. 

Bigham is an expert in collecting these moments — these snapshots of genuine humanity — and compels us to find them in our own lives too. 

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