Outside, the Sky Is Blue by Christina Patterson review – faith, hope and trauma | Autobiography and memoir


You’re not meant to envy your parents, but Christina Patterson couldn’t help envying hers. A Swedish mum with a Mona Lisa smile and love of cakes, coffee and conversation; an English dad with matinee idol good looks and a prestigious Foreign Office career; their love-at-first-sight romance; their glamorous postings to Bangkok and Rome before they settled in Surrey, where Christina and her two older siblings, Tom and Caroline, grew up. They made life seem so easy, as if it were one long holiday and happiness came as naturally as leaves to a tree.

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As Patterson sorts through cine films and photo albums, the reader feels envious too – of the golden childhood she had, the magic shows put on in the front garden, the summer holidays in Sweden, the “warmth and love and laughter”. Then you realise that she’s remembering all this while clearing the family house. And that she’s having to learn to refer to Tom in the past tense. And that one reluctantly recalled aspect of childhood – the terrible scenes caused by her “skinny, sensitive, beautiful sister” Caroline – feels very ominous.

The book is subtitled “a memoir of faith, hope and loss”. More poignantly, it’s a memoir about the loss of faith and hope. The Pattersons were a churchgoing family, but Christina upped the stakes when she joined the youth club in search of a boy and found Jesus instead. In no time she was speaking in tongues and telling her diary that Monty Python’s Life of Brian was unforgivably blasphemous. “You’re beginning to sound like a fanatic,” her mother said, even before she went off to Perugia to convert Muslims. Later she turned down an exciting job in Arezzo because Bev, from the Christian leadership team, got word from God that Christina should do His work in Tooting instead. By then she had graduated from Durham, after Jesus (the Oxford college, that is) turned her down. She’d have liked a boyfriend but only one who also “knew the Lord”. At 26, she was still a virgin.

Her faith might have endured but for her constant struggles with ill health. First it was her acne, which Roaccutane made worse. Then she was diagnosed with lupus. Then polyarthralgia, “which really just means an awful lot of pain”. At times she had to use a wheelchair. Therapy helped; reiki and acupuncture too. But then she’d be laid low again. Later came breast cancer and a spectacularly unpleasant surgeon. Fellow Christians told her that God was leading her through the wilderness for her own good. It’s a glorious moment in the narrative when she finally says, “Fuck off, God. Go and inflict your poisonous blows on somebody else.”

It’s not only she who has been in pain. Her sister Caroline experiences delusions and spends time in a mental hospital with schizophrenia. She recovers but despite a sweet demeanour is never deemed well enough (in the eyes of insensitive employers) to hold down a job. Tom struggles too, quitting his job as an actuary for less stressful work as a gardener. His solace is wine and music. Caroline’s is an obsession with the Romanovs and, late on in her short life, a boyfriend.

Christina, by comparison, is a success story: publicity assistant at Faber, director of the Poetry Society, editor and columnist at the Independent. She’s attractive, vibrant, funny, loves parties and has lots of good friends. Yet as a childless woman who’s often ill and who has never found the kind of love her parents did, she feels a failure. Don’t despair, you want to tell her, things will work out. But as she faces a mastectomy in the final 50 pages, you start to wonder if they ever will.

The book journeys to dark places – Four Funerals and a Wedding might have been the title – but it’s too honest and well written to be dispiriting. Christina’s search to understand what happened to Caroline is especially moving – at one point she comes across the words Caroline had written in a page (later sticky-taped over) of an old diary: “Let Christina die this year of cancer.” That might have killed off any compassion she felt. But she perseveres in her quest to understand .

Back in the days of their Jesus worship, a fellow zealot told Christina that God had laid a curse on the Patterson family. The story of the book is how she came to see what rubbish that was – that she wasn’t being punished for some nameless sin; that bad things can happen to good people; and that human love is what counts, not subservience to a sadist in the sky.

Outside, the Sky Is Blue is published by Headline (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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