About the Book:
By the time she was eleven and living in the Soviet Union, Lee Kofman had undergone several major operations on both a defective heart and injuries sustained in a bus accident. Her body harbours a constellation of disfiguring scars that have shaped her sense of self and her view of the world. But it wasn’t until she moved to Israel and later to Australia that she came to think these markings weren’t badges of honour to flaunt but were, in fact, imperfections that needed to be hidden away.
In a captivating mix of memoir and cultural critique, Kofman casts a questioning eye on the myths surrounding our conception of physical perfection and what it’s like to live in a body that deviates from the norm. She reveals the subtle ways we are all influenced by the bodies we inhabit, whether our differences are pronounced or noticeable only to ourselves. She talks to people of all shapes, sizes and configurations and takes a hard look at the way media and culture tell us how bodies should and shouldn’t be.
Illuminating, confronting and deeply personal, Imperfect challenges us all to consider how we exist in the world and how our bodies shape the people we become.
This is an absolutely fascinating read. Part memoir, part cultural analysis, part social critique. Lee Kofman, through the gaze of her own experience of living with visible scars, gives us a thorough analysis of living life as an ‘imperfect’ person in a Western society. Assumptions, myths, and truths – all is laid bare in this book. Lee also explores her concepts holistically by examining the experiences of many different types of ‘imperfect’ people: those who are scarred, those who suffer a disability or health condition that has altered their appearance, those with body sizes that differ from the average, and even those who choose to differentiate themselves deliberately via extreme body modification. Extensively researched, utilising both secondary sources and her own field research, Imperfect is an immersive and fascinating read that I had trouble putting down…just one more chapter!
‘The body keeps getting wounded, as it always does, and while we tend to its wounds in increasingly clever ways, we seem reluctant to acknowledge the ravaged aftermath of our medical triumphs. To make mutilations the defining features of characters in modern myths is to reduce their humanity and reassure ourselves. For if these people are either tragics or monsters, the gods of disfigurements, then what has happened to them cannot happen to us. The distancing conjures up safety, and renders mutilations even stranger, even more frightening, even more titillating.’
While memoirs are not my preferred reading, I did really enjoy the memoir aspect of this book. Maybe it was Lee’s style of writing, maybe it was what she chose to write about, maybe it was a combination of both of these things, but this book distinctly lacks the ‘misery memoir’ undertone that typifies many that I have come across. Hers is an unfortunate story of a congenital heart defect followed by a terrible traffic accident, all in childhood. It was particularly interesting reading about the Soviet health system. Oh my goodness, it must have been so distressing as a parent to know that your child would need hospitalisation and specialist care whilst living under Soviet rule. Lee talks about how an American Jewish family sent her parents jeans to sell on the black market so that they had money to bribe hospital staff in order to ensure the right doctor operated on her and also that she had basic sanitary care whilst in recovery. Reading things like this is humbling, you really are reminded of what we take for granted here in Australia, of how lucky we are with our health care system. The scars that Lee got from her heart surgery, and later the traffic accident, were extensive and shaped her life from that point on. Interestingly, she points out that Eastern views of scars differ greatly to Western views, and it wasn’t until she moved out of the Soviet Union that she really felt the full impact of being ‘imperfect’.
‘In studies of the experiences of imperfect people, shame appears and reappears as one of the most persistent feelings; it is one of the main reasons why many of us go to great lengths and inconveniences to conceal ourselves. The ghastly ghost of shame hovers more so over women – the shame about not fulfilling our own expectations of beauty, but also about disappointing others, another typically female concern. Women have always been expected to be custodians of everyone else’s feelings but their own. We can even feel responsible for how other people respond to our bodies.’
Lee kind of opened up a whole world of different for me with this book, especially once she dove into the world of extreme body modifiers. I had no idea that all of those things were even possible, and I’m still a little unsure on why people want to turn themselves into pixies or animals or any number of fantastically strange beings. But analysing why wasn’t really the point of Lee’s work, more that they exist and happily breach those perfection barriers that others so desperately want to mould to. I guess it’s a lot to do with choice too. To be scarred or changed bodily involuntarily offers a different life experience to those who have scarred or changed themselves willingly. Whilst reading the final chapters of this book, a fellow Year 12 classmate of my daughter had a horrific incident at a party: he was set alight whilst jumping over a fire at the same time that another boy was throwing fuel onto it. He has extensive burns now and will obviously be scarred for life. Reading this book has widened my appreciation of what this actually means. A scar is not just a scar. It is a part of its bearer, something their identity might become shaped around. My heart breaks for this young man whose final year of high school has just taken a dramatic and life altering turn for the worse.
‘I tried to write the story of my life as one of a fiercely independent woman, which I think in many ways it is, and yet I also love being dependent. Does this make me yet again a not—good—enough—feminist? I hope not. I think not. I think there is power, and wisdom, and grace too, in accepting help.’
I really can’t recommend this terrific book highly enough. In fact, the day after reading it, I told several people at work about it and have lent my copy to a co-worker who is keen to read it during the upcoming school holidays. It would make a great choice for a book club as well, there is so much to discuss and ponder over. Compulsive reading!
Thanks is extended to Affirm Press for providing me with a copy of Imperfect for review.
About the Author:
Dr Lee Kofman is a Russian-born, Israeli-Australian novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist and former academic based in Melbourne. She is the author of three fiction books (published in Israel in Hebrew) and the memoir The Dangerous Bride (Melbourne University Press 2014). Lee is also the co-editor of Rebellious Daughters (Ventura Press, 2016), an anthology of personal essays by prominent Australian authors. Her short works have been widely published in Australia, USA, Canada, Israel, the UK and Scotland. Lee holds a PhD in social sciences and MA in creative writing, and is a mentor and teacher of writing. She is also a regular public speaker and panel moderator.
Published by Affirm Press
Released 8th January 2019
7 thoughts on “Book Review: Imperfect by Lee Kofman”
Hi Theresa, I’ve never considered that our society’s obsession with perfection is a specifically “western” thing, so it’s interesting that the eastern view can be quite different. I wonder if scars are more associated with bravery and honour in other traditions, after all, ritual scarring often had a place in indigenous culture. Interesting review, thanks.
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Lee does talk about scarification in African cultures and gives some slightly horrifying examples of extreme scarring that is actually revered within these cultures.
Interestingly, she also talks about the Soviet experience and how scarring wasn’t something you hid because bodies weren’t about beauty, they were about purpose and how much they can work. Scars indicated the durability of a body. Really interesting stuff.
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That sounds like something we could learn. Imagine if we could all be valued for our contribution rather than our appearance. When you think about it, a scar is evidence of the body’s ability to heal and a sign of human resilience.
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What you’ve just said about scars is reminiscent of the opening quote in the novel I am currently reading! It’s called The Wonder of Lost Causes. I’ll pop the quote here for you once I get home later today. 🙂
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