The slightly gushy letter that prefaces Meg Fee’s book of essays (at least in my proof copy) made me wonder if it would be for me but its premise – a young woman finding her way in New York City, always a lure – made me press on. Fee’s short pieces cover thirteen years, a collection of raw yet beautifully crafted snapshots of her painful coming-of-age in the city she had dreamed of inhabiting, growing up in Texas.
Fee wins a place to study drama at Julliard, taking it up despite her parents’ quiet reservations. The seductive dream of New York City took root long ago in Fee’s psyche but fulfilling it proves harder than an idealistic eighteen-year-old could have imagined. After ending a brief acting career, she finds herself drifting, following the all-too-predictable route of waiting at tables and menial dead ends in a post-crash economy. She falls in love with an unattainable man setting the template for a string of relationships which never seem quite right. Female friendship is hard to come by, as are decent places to live. Thinking to combine the two, she finds herself trapped in a bedbug infested basement with a roommate who not only refuses to accept the reality of her misery but who turns nasty with it. Throughout it all Fee struggles with an eating disorder, depression and grinding loneliness, eventually renting a room in a Harlem house and finding real friendship. By the end of this short book, Fee has decided it’s time to say goodbye to her New York dream after thirteen years of struggling to fulfil it.
All that may sound like your average everyday misery memoir, not my cup of tea at all, but Fee’s eloquence steers her book well clear of trite self-indulgence evoking empathy in her readers as she lays bare her heart in words that makes you flinch waiting for the next blow:
Hunger seems preferable to sadness, and so I cling to it
A returned coffee lid, an extra set of hands. A lifetime of not always having to ask. Occasionally I am rendered breathless by how much there is to look forward to.
Fee punctuates her vignettes with brief descriptions of what home would mean to her, becoming increasingly less ambitious as time wears on until she realises that home lies within herself. Perhaps not the most characteristic read for me but one that touched me far more than I had expected.
So much has been said about Paul Kalanithi’s account of the twenty-two months from his diagnosis with lung cancer to his death at the age of thirty-six that I’m not sure what I can add of any value except to tell you emphatically to read it. This week sees its paperback publication in the UK. There will be piles displayed on tables in every bookshop you’re likely to enter. Don’t shy away from it because it’s winter, because you think it might be depressing and or because it feels like the world’s going to hell in a handcart: read it and be uplifted by Kalanithi’s eloquence, courage and the beauty of his writing.
Kalanithi’s account begins with his diagnosis then takes us back to his teenage years when he was convinced that he’d turn his back on the medicine much of his family practices and become a writer. Kalanithi was one of those rare people – equally at home studying the arts or sciences, only coming to medicine after taking a Master’s in literature. An epiphany led him to realise that only through medicine would he be able to come to an understanding of life and its meaning: he saw it as a calling not a job. He takes us through his training – the bone-deep exhaustion, the struggle between empathy and self-preservation and the difficulty of maintaining relationships while engaged in such emotionally, mentally and physically draining work. He and his wife, also a surgeon, are both open about the strains on their marriage. Half-way through the book, the doctor becomes a patient. Kalanithi describes the path his illness takes, the difficulty of being a patient and his wise oncologist’s insistence that he turn away from prognosis statistics and decide what meaning he wants to give to the life remaining to him. He and Lucy decide to go ahead with having a child – something they had planned to do in a few years – a decision which brings them both great joy. Kalanithi died on March 9th, 2015 when his beloved daughter Cady was just eight months old.
It’s not possible to write about Kalanithi’s book without remarking on the beauty and clarity of his writing, both in sentiment and description. When recounting dissecting his first cadaver he talks about the difficulty of separating its humanity from what he’s about to do then describes his first cut: ‘the scalpel is so sharp it doesn’t so much cut the skin as unzip it’. That struggle with empathy and the mechanics of what a surgeon must do is a dilemma Kalanithi returns to constantly, eventually electing to gently lead patients and their families towards the treatment that suits them, a world away from the scalpel-at-the-ready surgeons we see in TV hospital dramas. His priority is to find a meaning in life, to try to understand what that might be for each patient, then for himself when his own time comes. All this is amplified through anecdote, often expressed in lyrically beautiful prose: premature twins are born looking more like ‘preparatory sketches of children than children themselves’. Kalanithi’s humanity, compassion and courage shine out from every page, his concern for his patients palpable and his deeply probing thoughts about life and its quality enlightening. He was unable to finish the book he spent his last year writing but his wife has added an epilogue of equal thought and eloquence, tender yet clear-eyed. In it she says that Kalanithi was utterly determined to write a book which would engage his readers in understanding death and facing their mortality. That he has done, and done it with an admirable grace. Please read it.
I first came across Diana Athill’s elegant prose in Stet, her account of her time at André Deutsch, the publishing house she co-founded in 1951 with her eponymous business partner. Deutsch was a refugee, one of the many who shaped modern British publishing. For readers who haven’t yet come across the book, it’s a treat – stuffed with stories of the many authors Athill edited, from V. S. Naipul to Jean Rhys. Published in 2015, her ninety-eighth year, Alive, Alive Oh! is a set of essays: some are autobiographical, others meditative – all are beautifully expressed.
Athill introduces her collection by telling us that now she no longer feels the pull of sex her mind has turned to the beauty of places and objects, painting a glorious word picture of bluebells spilling down a hillside at Fountain’s Abbey releasing a ‘great wave of scent’ in the early morning sun. Her first essay continues this theme with memories of her grandparents’ garden where she spent a great deal of time after a TB scare. These two pieces set the scene for a collection that ranges far and wide. Several essays celebrate the frivolous – there’s a particularly lovely one on clothes with a gorgeous description of the gold lamé dress with which the fifteen-year-old Athill became infatuated. Others are much more serious, from the titular piece recounting her miscarriage from which she emerges having discovered her zest for life, to a discussion of the legacy left to Tobago by Europeans, well-meaning or otherwise. Athill is consoling about old age, enjoying the unexpected delights of new friendship in her retirement home, but clear-eyed in her attitude to death, reconciled to the event but not necessarily the manner of it. The final entry is a poem which ends ‘Why want anything more marvellous than what is’ which sums the book up beautifully.
There’s so much crammed into this slim collection, a reflection of a long life richly led. Many of Athill’s pieces are underpinned with humour: in the post-war years she delights in the vogue for printed wallpaper, covering her walls with an ivy patterned one which ‘swarmed from floor to ceiling on all four walls… …I was tremendously pleased with it and it was hideous’. Others are thought-provoking: ‘it was the very richness of what surrounded them that made the houses’ poverty so shocking, as though you split a glossy fruit to find only a little warm dust’ on Tobago. Concision and elegance are the hallmarks of her writing, reflecting two of Jean Rhys’ maxims – “I have to get it like it really was” and “ You can’t cut too much” – which Athill says have ‘done a lot to keep me in order’. In her acknowledgements she mentions her own editor, admitting to feeling a little affronted at the idea of having one at all then, with characteristic grace, thanking Bella Lacey: ‘What I had forgotten during my post-publishing years was that the one person who really loves a good editor is – the author!… …Her or his job is to make your book even more yours’. That last quote reminds me of William Maxwell, another editor whose writing is marked by grace and elegance who also understood the relationship between an author and their editor.
Back in 2012, I was sent a copy of Tim Winton’s Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir to read for a magazine I was working on. In it Winton writes about his passion for his country’s coastline, recalling childhood beach holidays then learning to surf as a lonely adolescent. I’d read and enjoyed Winton’s fiction but was unprepared for the beauty of his writing about nature. To an extent Island Home complements Land’s Edge as its subtitle suggests. It’s a heartfelt hymn of praise to Australia’s often awe-inspiring landscape but it’s also an urgent exhortation, aimed squarely at his fellow countrymen, to sit up and recognise its beauty before it’s too late.
Rather than a straightforward narrative, Island Home takes the form of a set of essays each prefaced with a short vignette from Winton’s life. It begins with Winton taking his nearly four-year-old son for a walk in Ireland, dashing for home in a hailstorm. Once there, his son points to a picture of his grandparents taken in Australia and asks if it’s real. Time to go home. Winton weaves his memories and experiences of the Australian landscape through the ten sections of his book, ranging from the rise of environmentalism in the 1980s and his own conversion to the ‘greenie’ cause to the way in which the landscape is portrayed in Australian literature. It’s an intensely personal book, impassioned in tone. Winton’s own reverence for his country’s landscape contrasts sharply with his often exasperated perceptions of his compatriots’ attitudes. He saves a particular rancour for the Australian publishing industry, apparently still suffering from a post-colonial hangover and fretting about how Winton’s novels – firmly rooted in the natural world – will be perceived in London or New York. Given that he’s won the Miles Franklin Award four times and been shortlisted for the Booker twice, presumably they’ve come round to the idea.
Just as with Land’s Edge, the most striking thing about Winton’s book for me is the writing. There are a multitude of vividly poetic descriptions which sing off the page, particularly in the memory passages that preface each essay. Here’s a smattering: ‘Hail slants in, pinging and peppering us’ in Ireland; ‘beef carcasses sliding by like dry-cleaned coats on endless racks’ in Albany; a beach ‘looks lifeless but the whole place pops and sighs and rattles’. The final section is entitled ‘Paying Respect’. It’s a tribute both to Winton’s friend Chapman who died in 2011 and to David Banggal Mowaljarlai’s lifelong attempts to educate European Australians about the land. Winton laments the lack of respect paid to the indigenous people saying that ‘Aboriginal wisdom is the most under-utilized intellectual and emotional resource this country has’. His book ends on a hopeful note as he looks towards a new generation. It’s a thought-provoking set of essays, not quite what I was expecting. I wonder what Australians make of it.
I was more than a little surprised to be sent a new Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m pretty up and together on my ‘Books to Look Out For’ previews and I’d seen nothing in the fiction schedules. Then I spotted that it had been translated which discombobulated me further. Reading the press release I found that In Other Words is the product of Lahiri’s passion for the Italian language, a passion so great that she uprooted her family from the States to live in Rome for a year to immerse herself in it. Her book is a set of essays – intimate reflections on learning the language – presented as a parallel text: one page in Italian written by Lahiri; the facing page in English translated by Anne Goldstein. There are also two short stories.
Lahiri begins with her struggles to learn Italian in the States after her first trip to Florence with her sister back in 1994. It’s a frustrating experience, and even more so when she finds that when she returns to Italy years later as a successful writer she can understand all that’s said to her but is unable to be understood herself. Eventually, the teacher with whom she’s had most success tells her the only way to achieve what she wants is to live in Italy. Six months before leaving she decides to read nothing but Italian finding it a liberation: ‘Reading in another language implies a perpetual state of growth, of possibility’. Writing, however is a different matter: ‘When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest, a traveller… …When I write in Italian, I feel like an intruder, an imposter’. Throughout this set of essays, Lahiri reflects on her relationship with language and the way in which each of her three languages affects her identity. Born in America, her ‘mother tongue’ is Bengali, the first language she spoke and continued to speak until starting school; her ‘stepmother tongue’ is English and the one she feels most comfortable in. As she says in her Afterword, this is her first work of non-fiction but the themes remain the same as in her fiction: it’s about ‘identity, alienation, belonging’.
Lahiri fans may be wondering if this is a book for them and I think that depends on your own relationship with language. I’ve been interested in words since learning Latin at school and discovering its relationship with English hence my enjoyment of the book, although I did find some of the essays covered the same ground. Lahiri’s writing is often intimate, introspective and always eloquent, a vivid description of the process of learning a language and our relationship with our different ways of communication. At one point she finds she has an extensive vocabulary, much of it outdated as if she’s ‘dressed in an outlandish manner, wearing a long, elegant skirt of another era, a T-shirt, a straw hat and slippers’ – beautifully translated by Goldstein, of course, At times I was reminded of Eva Hoffman’s brilliant autobiography Lost in Translation in which she writes about the loss of her native language after emigrating to Canada at the age of thirteen and the long slow process of trying to find her way back to the nuance and intimacy with which she expressed herself in Polish. In her Afterword, Lahiri describes herself as being at a crossroads, facing her departure from Rome and unable to decide if she will continue to read and write only in Italian. That seems to me to be quite a challenge outside of Italy but it will be interesting to see which road she takes.
It’s February and as often happens at this time of the year I’ve been feeling a little sorry for myself – life’s a bit dull, I’m in one of my periodic energy dips and winter seems to have dragged on too long despite the fact that we’ve been spared the wet miseries of last year. Reading Anna Lyndsey’s eloquent memoir put the kibosh on that little whingy outbreak of self-indulgence: she suffers from a form of dermatitis so extreme that long periods of her life are spent in a blacked out room, unable to tolerate any kind of light.
It opens with a particularly vivid chapter as she frantically tries to light-proof a room in the house she shares with her partner, Pete. Even the smallest sliver will burn her skin. A sensitivity which began when sitting in front of computer screens, then extended to fluorescent light now includes sunlight. She must confine herself to this single room, only venturing downstairs when Pete has taken the elaborate precautions necessary for them to eat together. Despite the blackout she must dress in many protective layers so that no light penetrates her clothing. Once an ambitious civil servant with ten years in Whitehall under her belt, Lyndsey is now dependent on Pete to help her navigate this devastating condition. Her days are spent listening to talking books – she discovers a surprising predilection for SAS novels although she’ll listen to anything except James Patterson or Miss Read. Radio 4 provides a much-needed alternative but music is to be avoided. It taps too deeply into her emotions dissolving the ‘careful stoicism’ needed to cope with her illness and all that entails. Girl in the Dark is Lyndsey’s account of the ways in which she has learned to deal with her disability and what it’s like to live a life so narrow. It’s also a quiet testament to love: Pete, practical and down to earth, takes each development in her condition as it comes, helping to solve seemingly intractable problems, only occasionally expressing his annoyance when one of the wackier therapists Lyndsey turns to in desperation starts hiding the food.
Lyndsey tells her story at first in a series of impressionistic snapshots – often vivid, sometimes funny – taking a more chronological approach in the second half when remissions are on the horizon. As she points out in her note at the end, time is somewhat elastic when you live much of your life in the dark. One of her strategies for dealing with boredom is playing word games which seems entirely appropriate given her facility with language. Her descriptions of the natural world which she and Pete explored in ‘the life before’ are quite beautiful, making them all the more poignant given what comes after. Her explorations of therapies – some conventional, some downright bonkers – are often very funny, and she’s entirely honest about the misery and suicidal thoughts that lurk at the back of her mind bursting out when left unsaid for too long. It’s impossible not to be awed by Lyndsey’s resilience, endurance and humour: at one point she writes ‘In the end we have one choice: to suffer well or to suffer badly’. She calls the quality she reaches for ‘grace’, and she has it spades.
When Will Boast shows a writer friend a fictionalised version of his family history she tells him ‘If you put all that in, no one will believe it’. Perhaps she might have said no one would want to believe it for much of his story is too sad, striking too close to home. By the age of twenty-four Boast had lost first his mother when he was seventeen, then his brother not two years later, and lastly his father. At this point you might be forgiven for assuming this is a misery memoir – that tired old genre which seems, thankfully, to have slipped away – but despite its inevitable sadness Boast’s book is as much a page-turning mystery as an exploration of what must have felt like overwhelming grief. When turning out his father’s papers he discovers not only that Andrew had been divorced but that he’d had two children by his first wife, two half-brothers kept secret from Boast and his brother.
Boast’s father drank himself to death – collapsing on his way home from work when his stomach ulcer ruptured – although some might say he died of a broken heart. His wife had succumbed to a brain tumour five years before, and his youngest son, Rory, had been killed in a car crash after a drunken spree. Both Andrew and Nancy were British, transplanted to Wisconsin via Ireland by Andrew’s plastics firm. Boast remembers visits to the UK, summers spent in Southampton and Salisbury, never quite feeling at home in the mid-West where the ‘Cheerio, everyone’ of his first day at school, aged seven, haunts him into his teenage years. He’s the studious son, his brother the wild one – handsome and cool with it. Their parents row continually about money, sleeping in separate rooms and seemingly only tolerating each other but Andrew nurses Nancy tenderly when she becomes ill. An accomplished engineer, he has forty patents under his belt, works all hours and is stingy to put it mildly. When Boast decides to get in touch with his half-brothers after Andrew’s death a different father emerges: a handsome, dapper young man, beautifully and expensively dressed; a charmer who marries an older woman.
Losing a parent when young marks you out but being left virtually without family by the time you’re twenty-four is a very hard burden to bear. To then find that there are two unknown half-siblings in the wings would be enough to send anyone into a flat spin. Boast’s book is a painfully honest account of his experience and how he sets about dealing – or not dealing – with it. His need to reach out to his half-brothers is coupled with a wariness that borders on suspicion; he finds himself in competition with Arthur as to which of their very different versions is the real Andrew; he uses his plight to manipulate young women – all this delivered in unfussy, un-selfpitying prose. In his final chapter he applies all that he’s learned about his family to his previous understanding of their history. We all know our parents as just that – their previous lives the stuff of family stories, embroidered and polished over the years. We take for granted what they tell us or what we choose to infer. We don’t ask about the gaps, the discrepancies – too caught up in our own growing-up, then our own lives until it’s too late. Epilogue is Boast’s attempt to fill those gaps. Let’s hope that writing it helped ease his pain.
I’ll read anything by Philippe Claudel. His prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in. All four of his novels are very different, from the dystopian The Investigation to Monsieur Linh and his Child, one of the most heart-wrenching novels I’ve ever read. He’s a fine film maker, too: I’ve Loved You So Long has the same quietly understated quality as his writing. All this is to explain why I might feel delighted by the arrival of what looks like the kind of little gift book artfully placed at the till point at Christmas, there to catch you eye and your wallet.
Most of us are familiar with the almost visceral link between smell and memory. A sudden whiff can take you instantly back to a moment in your past in the way that nothing else quite manages. In sixty-three short chapters, Claudel summons up the memories – incidents, people, a way of life – which mean a great deal to him. All sixty-three are beautifully expressed vignettes: word pictures painted sometimes delicately, sometimes vividly. It begins with a bright shining childhood memory of acacia blossoms, gathered and rushed home to be dipped in batter then hot oil before quickly consuming them – fragrance on the tongue in a burst of joy, the very essence of spring. Turkish sunbathers slathered with Ambre Solaire transport Claudel back to his ten-year-old self and his mother’s anxiety about too much sun. The smell of a campfire comforts a lonely little boy missing his mother. A whiff of cannabis takes him to the apartment of old friends where his hosts pontificate about the ineptitude of François Mitterrand while smoking a joint. More poignantly, the smell of a much-loved uncle’s pullover fades until it can no longer be detected no matter how deeply Claudel buries his nose in it. Then there are the smells I’m happy to live without – pissotières for instance, redolent of ‘rancid urine, excrement, Cresyl and Javel disinfectants’ or Munster cheese, banished to the windowsill by his mother. Pissotières, aside it’s like a gorgeous box of chocolates but to gobble it up would be to spoil it. There’s a lovely note from Euan Cameron at the back thanking Claudel and his wife for introducing him to ‘just a few of their local parfums’. I’m sure they returned the favour by thanking him for his excellent translation.
Claudel’s final vignette is entitled ‘Travels’ and it’s the one that tapped into my own memories most strongly: the spicy smell of the Marrakesh souk at Christmas; Portuguese orange blossom after a long dark UK winter; and the tang of brown coal in the winter air of Istanbul. Are there smells that transport you back to a time or place?
Jacqui at the very fine JacquiWine’s Journal has also reviewed Parfums.
Being of a certain age, I have several over-80s in my life and have lost several more dear to me in recent years. Some have aged well – I have a lovely memory of my 90-year-old aunt executing high kicks in her kitchen a few months before she died, delighted when H couldn’t match her – and some not so well. Penelope Lively seems to be managing it with grace and eloquence. The first part of her evocatively named Ammonites and Leaping Fish is a meditation on how it feels to be old: the loss of a beloved husband, the bodily aches and pains, the solaces and the changes seen. It leads us to a chapter on Lively’s life, an essay on context: her childhood in Cairo, her experience of the Second World War, how it felt to view the Suez Crisis from Britain while feeling more affinity with Egypt and bringing up a family in the Cold War. The chapter on memory talks of Lively’s fascination with the way that memory works and how that fascination has played into her fiction. We learn more of her own life through a series of snapshots – her most vivid memories from each of her eight decades – illustrating the way in which our memory changes as we get older. Perhaps inevitably, my favourite chapter is on reading and writing. Reading has always been a fundamental part of Lively’s life. She talks eloquently of the way in which reading feeds into writing, of finding what you like often through reading what you don’t like, of the books to which she returns and names her three desert island novels – Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, William Golding’s The Inheritors and, much to my delight, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, a personal favourite. I defy any reader not to enjoy a warm cosy glow when they read the sentence ‘To read is to experience.’ The final chapter takes six of her favourite possessions, including the eponymous ammonites and leaping fish, illustrating them and explaining why they are so important to her. It’s not so much a memoir as a series of carefully considered reflections which together form a beautifully expressed illumination of a long life.
The Observer’s New Reading column mentioned several reviews on Amazon complaining about the rip-off price of £1.99 for Lively’s short story, Abroad, which both saddened and annoyed me. As H pointed out £1.99 will buy you around a third to a half a glass of wine depending on the quality, and I’m sure the quality was high. We’ve all become used to paying very little for books but perhaps we forget to consider how much enjoyment, and some times enlightenment, we’re buying, and how many people need to be paid to produce a book, not least the author although they often are at the bottom of the pile. What do you think? Is £1.99 too much for 4,000 well-chosen words or do you think it’s fair?
I’m a huge Ann Patchett fan and when I spotted her memoir in Bloomsbury’s catalogue it seemed the next best thing to a new novel. When it arrived I was a little disappointed as it turns out to be a collection of essays rather than continuous prose but after gobbling them all down I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a better form than straightforward linear autobiography. Together they offer an album of vivid snapshots of Patchett’s life and how she sets about her work. The introduction explains how Patchett used newspaper and magazine gigs to fund her fiction before earning enough from it to give up her day job, so to speak, although she chose not to do this having come to enjoy the discipline of the essay and the excitement of finding out about new things. As her stature grew she was able to get commissions which tied in nicely with research for her novels – trips to Italy to review opera for Bel Canto which resulted in an abiding passion, a boat trip up the Amazon for State of Wonder.
As anyone who knows her fiction will tell you she writes extraordinarily well. Her essays are clear, often incisive and pull no punches, particularly when describing the sheer hard graft of writing when addressing prospective writers who want a magic formula in The Getaway Car. We learn a great deal about Patchett’s life – the pleasures and otherwise of a large extended family, how she found her dog Rose her most constant companion for sixteen years, the sadness of looking after a beloved grandmother afflicted with dementia, the excitement of helping to set up an independent bookshop and, of course, last but not least the long eponymous essay on how she overcame her reluctance to marry based on a family history chequered with divorce and embarked on a very happy marriage to her husband Karl. Vivid images leap out from some of these essays – the Ku Klux Klan marching down the street of the small Nashville town where she lived as a child, pushing her ancient beloved dog in a buggy because she can no longer walk, determinedly struggling through the most taxing part of the LAPD entry programme. There isn’t a dud essay in this collection and somehow it feels more honest as a reflection of a writer’s life than a straightforward autobiography written with the gloss of memory. If you’re a fan, it isn’t a novel but it’s surely the next best thing, and if you’re an aspiring writer it’s worth the cover price just to read the advice in The Getaway Car.