I very much enjoyed Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking when I read it a couple of years ago, but had strangely not sought out more of her work in the intervening months. I finally requested a copy of the markedly poignant Blue Nights from the library, and ended up reading it in one sitting.
The blurb of Blue Nights describes the way in which Didion has used writing as a tool to try and make sense of a traumatic event in her life; it is a work which displays ‘a stunning frankness about losing a daughter… [It] examines her thoughts, fears, and doubts regarding loving children, illness, and growing old.’ Didion also uses Blue Nights in order to explore ‘her role as a parent… [and] asks the candid questions any parent might about how she feels she failed either because cues were not taken or perhaps displaced.’ The book proper begins in July 2010, on a date which would have marked her daughter’s wedding anniversary.
Quintana Roo, the adopted daughter of Didion and her husband, fell ill with a mysterious virus, and was soon in a coma. Whilst very little – in fact, next to nothing – is written about this, or the process of Quintana’s death, Didion details, with an almost matter-of-factness, Quintana’s mental health as a young woman: ‘Of course they were eventually assigned names, a “diagnosis.” The names kept changing. Manic depression for example became OCD… and obsessive-compulsive disorder became something else…’. Eventually, it is pinpointed that Quintana suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, its effects of which Didion captures in the most beautiful and startling way: ‘Her depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes.’
In her introductory chapter, Didion writes candidly about why she selected Blue Nights as the title of her memoir. She says: ‘During the blue nights you think the end of the day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone. This book is called Blue Nights because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.’ Metaphorically, this fading of the summer is something upon which Didion is able to project feelings of her grief. On a more base level, she feels blue without her daughter and husband, and the position of retrospect in which she is writing, as well as the death of two beloveds, unsurprisingly makes her mood drop all the more.
Throughout Blue Nights, Didion recalls a stream of memories from her life, of family and friends, and relates them to us using almost a stream-of-consciousness style. For instance, she writes: ‘Time passes. / Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.’ She is tough upon herself and past decisions which she has made in places, particularly when thinking about her daughter’s childhood: ‘She was already a person. I could never afford to see that.’
Blue Nights is both a wonderful work of love, and a showcase of the heartbreak which Didion has gone through, after first the death of her husband, and then of her only daughter. To those who are grieving, comfort can be found within its pages. The ‘incisive and electric honesty’ which the blurb details can be found throughout; it feels as though Didion is writing as a form of self-therapy, using her voice to expel her doubts, and keep her memories of Quintana alive. Blue Nights is searingly honest, and its non-linear style really gives a feel for how jumbled a mind with grief in can become. Touching and sad, Blue Nights feels like a moving tribute to a lost daughter.