A Smell of Burning

by Colin Grant, Jonathan Cape, £16.99.

Colin Grant, a doctor who works as a radio producer for the BBC, was prompted to write this book, subtitled “The Story of Epilepsy”, because his brother Christopher was an epileptic. Alongside the history of epilepsy, Grant tells the tragic story of Christopher, who died, aged 39, after a fit, which was categorised as SUDEP (sudden unexplained death in epilepsy). Both brothers come from a Jamaican background and it was Grant’s poignant task, traditional to his culture, to dress his brother’s body for burial.

The author reminds us that there are 60 million sufferers from epilepsy worldwide. In Britain, 1,000 people die each year from epilepsy-related causes. The two main categories are generalised seizures, which have no known cause though there is thought to be a genetic factor, and partial seizures, which are the result of congenital disease or head trauma.

Grant provides interesting case histories of notable epileptics, such as Julius Caesar, Dostoyevsky, Edward Lear and Van Gogh. Dostoyevsky, a writer of genius who described the condition in his haunting novel The Idiot, wrote in 1836 of the peculiar “aura” that would precede his attacks: “For several moments I would experience such joy as would be inconceivable in ordinary life.”

When Grant strays into the area of the Christian faith (he had a Catholic childhood, coloured with Jamaican Charismatic features) he comes slightly unstuck, as in his reductive suggestion that St Joan of Arc’s voices were the result of epilepsy. “Did temporal lobe seizures diminish or explode [her] mental capacity?” he asks. The answer is they did neither – a canonised visionary is not a medical problem. He asks the same question of St Paul.

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