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Non-Fiction November: ‘Girl in the Dark’ by Anna Lyndsey ****

I spotted a copy of Anna Lyndsey’s memoir, Girl in the Dark, whilst browsing in my local library. I hadn’t heard it before, but was drawn to both the title and design, and decided to pick it up. A work of memoir, Girl in the Dark has been described as, variously, ‘beautifully affecting’ (Observer), ‘a gift, a testament to the power of art as a saving grace’ (Susannah Cahalan), and filled with ‘melodic, penetrating prose’ (New York Times).

Lyndsey, who writes here under a pseudonym, had a full, normal life; she was working in a policy job for the government, and was under the spell of a budding new romance. However, she began to experience quite unusual symptoms, which sometimes got worse, and sometimes disappeared altogether for a long period, before coming back with a vengeance. She spent time away from work, and sought the opinions of many experts, who batted around diagnoses.

These symptoms were the beginning of her developing an extreme sensitivity to light, which has forced her to have to spend most of her time in a darkened room, with blacked-out windows, and no screens. During her best periods, Lyndsey is able to venture outside at dawn and dusk; at others, though, she has to spend months indoors, being incredibly careful when she ventures from the safety of her dark bedroom. Lyndsey is, after some time, diagnosed with a disorder called photosensitive seborrhoeic dermatitis, a skin disease caused by light.

Girl in the Dark, first published in 2015, is the account of her ‘descent into the depths of her rare and terrible illness and how she has managed to find light in even the darkest of times’. I am always drawn to illness narratives, but have never read anything specifically about light sensitivity before. Throughout, Lyndsey educated me as to how difficult – almost impossible – it can be to create full, unnatural darkness. The first chapter, ‘Light Gets In’, sets out how infuriating the process of making her bedroom a safe space was: ‘The light is laughing at me; it is playing deliberate games, lying low to persuade me that I have made an area secure, then as soon as I move on, wriggling through some overlooked wormhole. The day beyond my window is an ocean, pressing and pulsing at my protecting walls…’.

When Lyndsey comes into contact with any light, natural or otherwise, her skin becomes hypersensitive, and the effects of exposure can stay with her for weeks. She tells us: ‘Immediately I leave my blacked-out room, a clock is ticking; my skin begins its twisted dialogue with light… There are no blisters and no blotches – I am free of visible signs of conflict. But agonisingly, with ever-increasing ferocity, over the whole covering of my body, I burn with invisible fire.’ Summers are almost unbearable, and she has to cover every single inch of her skin with fabric, even in the depths of a heatwave. She develops a dependence upon audiobooks, as she is unable to grant herself the gift of enough light to read by.

Lyndsey details her growing familiarity with living in total darkness, in honest and insightful prose. She writes of things I cannot personally dream of losing – the joy of a walk outside in the sunshine, the simple light of a lamp shining in a bedroom at night – in a narrative which made me feel as though I was experiencing everything alongside her. She writes that even being close to the presence of light is highly affecting, and details her joy when she is able to move out of her bedroom, even for the briefest while: ‘When I hover on the threshold between the inside and the out – opening or closing a fanlight, or beside an open door at night – the smell fizzes in my nostrils like champagne.’

Throughout, Lyndsey intersperses dated portions of memoir with her reflections and dreams. She moves from her present day back to the early days, before her diagnosis, when she was able to work and travel freely. The short sections which make up the structure of Girl in the Dark are effective, and largely deal with one particular element of her condition, or the ways in which she must now indefinitely live with it.

Lyndsey muses, quite heartbreakingly in places, about the pressure she is putting on her husband by dint of her condition. She writes: ‘By staying, by shirking the responsibility and effort of leaving, by continuing to occupy this lovely man while giving him neither children nor a public companion nor a welcoming home – do I do wrong?’

As one might expect, the entire memoir is incredibly reflective. Lyndsey writes: ‘And I think back to the life I had before, a live of very ordinary components, with the usual balance of frustration and contentment, the standard complement of light and shade. And I remember the beginnings of the darkness and where it planted its first roots, smack into the centre of that life.’ Other relationships break down, and she comments occasionally on the scepticism which others have upon learning of her condition.

Over time, she gets to know others with chronic illnesses, and different variations of light sensitivity: ‘Like me,’ she writes, ‘they had a life before that has been lost; now they wander in the twilight zone where doctors diagnose but cannot cure, and the faint miasma of societal suspicion, never attached to those with cancer, or with heart disease, hangs about them, that somehow it must all be psychosomatic, or that at a deep level they actually want to be ill.’

In Girl in the Dark, Lyndsey provides a fascinating and candid insight into her illness. Her prose is careful and measured, and there is a real lyricism to it. Whilst I cannot say that this was an entirely comfortable read, which really brought to my attention things that I perhaps take for granted, and which Lyndsey has lost, I feel that Girl in the Dark is an incredibly important memoir, and one which deserves to be read more widely.