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Five Books About Broken Legs

This is a blog about a broken leg. A bleg, if you will.

Three months ago I broke mine. In the immediate aftermath of the breakage, when I was just out of hospital, Netflix offered up “Happiness For Beginners” – which would have been perfect fare were it not that a key plot point hinges on a character snapping his tibia/fibula – the same fracture I had. From then on, I noticed more and more films featuring either a broken leg (the result of the accident) or roller-skating (the cause of it). The roller-skating started with Barbie and went rapidly downhill from there. I can’t work out if this is the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, otherwise known as the frequency illusion, or just a really tactless algorithm.

It seems to me that a ‘broken leg’ is often treated, in fiction, as something definitely bad but not so awful you have to care. In real life, even with all the wonders of modern medicine, you care. As my own tiny calf takes its first faltering steps, and because I've been told PEOPLE LOVE LISTS, I share five books featuring a broken leg. For some these broken legs are pivotal, as it were – they bear the weight of the story, for others they can bear no weight at all. I can’t help noticing that all these books were written in the last two centuries. The trouble is, you go any older and the legs tend not to be broken so much as wooden* and I feel amputation deserves at the very least, its own list.

I can't help noticing how often, in these books, a broken leg functions as an opportunity to view the world anew, an idea that at the moment I find particularly cheering.

Misery – Stephen King

I’ve written about my love for Misery before but this has to top the list. Writer Paul Sheldon’s leg isn’t broken when he is injured in the car accident that brings him to his biggest fan, but it sure as shit is by the end. I know this is technically a broken foot but since I also had one of those (years ago) I’m allowing it. I know everyone remembers THAT SCENE from the movie but you have to read the book. Or read the book again. Stephen King is just amazing at describing pain. And opiates. Lots of opiates.

The Daughter Of Time – Josephine Tey

I first read this when I was eleven and have loved it ever since for sentimental reasons even though Inspector Grant’s face-theory is eugenics-adjacent. The entire plot is prompted by the protagonist’s prejudice. Our detective hero, stuck in hospital with a broken leg, just can’t believe that Richard The Third is a bad guy, based on Richard’s blue eyes. Grant then starts researching who killed the Princes in the Tower. Even though now the ‘research’ looks a bit like the kind anti-vaxxers do on the internet, and his historical conclusions are discredited, it’s still a story with insane momentum for one set in a bed. And it holds a place in my heart for introducing me to the simple idea that academic authority can be questioned.

A Leg To Stand On – Oliver Sacks

This is not fiction, but memoir. It’s so erudite and fascinating I had to reference it. Also I needed broken leg books I’d actually read. Oliver Sacks is always wonderful company and this has such a compelling personal story behind it you won’t want to put it down. After Oliver Sacks leg starts to mend he starts to view it as alien to his body. The book delves into phantom limb syndrome and how the brain maps the body. I remembered this fascinating book when, post-op, I read a piece in the NYT about new research into the function of dreaming as a kind of brain-body interface. Fascinating stuff.

Dime Detective – Cornell Woolrich

Now I haven’t actually read this collection of short stories from the forties so if it turns out to be incredibly racist please don’t blame me. I bring it up because I’m a crime writer myself now, and one of the short stories, “It Had to Be Murder” got adapted into a movie released 1954 and directed by a certain Mr Hitchcock, starring a certain Jimmy Stewart – oh why am I bothering - you all know it’s Rear Window. In Rear Window, the photographer “Jeff” Jefferies is confined to his apartment when he witnesses some pretty crazy neighbour behaviour. By the end of it he has not one broken leg, but two.

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

Everyone should read this for the narrative voice fireworks alone. In it, Cash Bundren breaks his leg and has to ride his mother’s coffin as it brings her body home. That’s enough to make you want to buy it, right? At one point his family try to set his leg in cement. The NHS tried the same thing with me. I fell hard for Cash Bundren at the age of sixteen, though not so hard my tibia snapped, starting a long tradition of fancying fictional carpenters. I’m not alone in this obsession – carpenter used to be the profession of choice for rom-com heroes, before it was chef, or architect – jobs which are creative but sound like you have to pick stuff up. I don’t know what the dreamy rom com job is now. Please advise.

*The most famous example being Mr Wegg in Our Mutual Friend. I often wish, when it came to naming characters, I had Dickens' blithe confidence.


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