I really enjoyed Nell Stevens’ most recent novel, Briefly: A Delicious Life, which I listened to as a rather glorious audiobook at the tail end of 2022. I was keen to read more of her work, and settled on her debut, Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World. These two titles are polar opposites, in a way, but I was keen to see how Stevens’ flowery and sharp prose style translated into a work of non-fiction.
As part of an MFA Stevens undertook at Boston University, she was ‘given the opportunity to spend three months in a location of her choice in order to write her novel’. In Bleaker House, she sets out to ‘teach’ herself ‘the art of loneliness’, by moving temporarily to Bleaker Island, an outpost of the Falkland Islands. The book recounts her experiences, and her determination ‘to rid herself of all distractions’ in the quest of writing a novel.
Bleaker House is described as ‘part memoir, part travelogue, part story collection’. It presents an ‘exploration of the narrow spaces between real life and fiction and, in the end, a book about failing to write a novel, but finally becoming a writer.’
Bleaker Island has a population of just two people, and for a large part of Stevens’ stay, she is the only resident. She captures something of the stark loneliness almost immediately, opening the book as follows: ‘This is a landscape an art-therapy patient might paint to represent depression: grey sky and a sweep of featureless peat rising out of the sea. The water is the same colour as the clouds; it is flecked by white-capped waves, spikes of black rock, and, intermittently, the silvery spines of dolphins. I pace from room to room in the empty house, testing out the silence with occasional noises… My fingers are stiff with cold.’
When deciding where to travel to during her ‘global fellowship’, Stevens recalls: ‘The absorbing vision of “effortless concentration” appears before me again, and I find myself pining for empty, remote places: snow plains, broad lakes, oceans, wherever there is more nothing than there is something and where, I imagine, I will finally do the thing I have spent my adult life hankering after, attempting, and interrupting: write a novel.’ She started her journey in Darwin on the Falklands, before moving to the capital, Stanley, and then on to Bleaker Island. Stevens reflects on the drastic moments of self-discovery she regularly experiences: ‘If my days in Darwin were a brief introduction to myself, to the self I am when everything else is stripped away, life in Stanley is a lesson in self-consciousness. Wherever I go, I am acutely aware of my strangeness… I am an oddity. I am not, immediately, to be trusted.’
I immediately enjoyed the tone of the narrative; it blends more serious happenings with warmth and the odd snippet of humour. Stevens makes us continually aware of the conflicting emotions she feels, at once pleased to have the peace and quiet in which to write, but battling with loneliness amongst the lack of communication she can have with others. She has no phone signal, and an Internet connection is markedly difficult to come by.
Stevens intersperses her own experiences with the fragments of a novel she started to write whilst living on Bleaker Island, as well as reflective thoughts about her sometimes tricky writing process. She notes: ‘My writing sessions at the dressing table become fitful and disjointed in this mood. I take run-ups at the beginning, trying it from several different angles. I cast my line, over and over, into the water, waiting for something to bite.’ She scolds herself for the pressure she puts on, in attempting to write 2,500 words every day: ‘It’s just a story. Just words in one order or another. It’s supposed to be fun.’
Whilst I enjoyed the realistic elements of Bleaker House, I would have enjoyed it far more had the small sections of fiction not been included. To me, they felt disconnected, and incomplete, even though the narrative was a relatively straightforward one which carried through. They detracted, for me, from Stevens’ lived experience, which was my main interest. I really did enjoy the elements of memoir, and the travel experience; Stevens’ recollections were honest, raw, and level-headed. She is remarkably open in revealing that her time on Bleaker Island was not really what she had imagined, and that having little to no company on a day-to-day basis was a real battle. Although Bleaker House was not quite the book I imagined, I still took a great deal from it as a reader.