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‘The Small Widow’ by Janet McNeill ****

Irish writer Janet McNeill seems to be unjustly underappreciated.  Whilst a prolific author, publishing ten novels for adults and penning a whole host of radio plays, it is her children’s books for which she is most well known – and for those, she seems to be barely remembered.  She has intrigued me ever since I saw her single title, Tea at Four o’Clock, represented on the Virago Modern Classics list.  Whilst I was unable to find a copy of the aforementioned in time for my book club’s monthly author selection, I got my hands on a copy of The Small Widow, and am so pleased that I did.

9780957233652Fortnight writes of McNeill’s work favourably, and draws parallels between her and ‘English novelists such as Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and, more particularly, Elizabeth Taylor.  What their writing shares… is a subtlety which makes demands of its readers.’  These three are all novelists whom I very much enjoy reading, and I have adored everything of Taylor’s which I have read to date.  I was therefore most excited to begin The Small Widow.

The novel’s protagonist is a middle-aged woman named Julia, who has been left a widow after the death of her husband Harold.  She is ‘alone and struggling with grief as well as her new life.’  She is a mother to four children, none of whom she feels overly comfortable in interacting with, as their relationships have shifted so much since their childhoods.  For the first time, she ‘has to learn independence, she needs to discover who she is when she is no longer a wife and is now a mother to children who do not need her.’  The central question which the novel asks is this: ‘As a widow can Julia find a freedom, an identity, which has never existed in her life before?’

The novel opens with Harold’s funeral: ‘The car slowed, they were approaching the gates.  Julia’s throat tightened, the impossible thing is happening now…  She ached to escape from the pressure of her daughters’ hips, the inevitability of shared warmth and the threat of shared emotion.’  The funeral scene is vivid: ‘The mourners formed into an untidy procession and started in the direction of the grave, trying to find a pace between a stroll and a trot.  The raw wind robbed them of any attempt at dignity.  It plucked their hair and their clothes, snatched the breath out of their mouths and ruffled the tufts of frozen grass.  Only the humped shapes of the dead were undisturbed.’  McNeill goes on to probe Julia’s conflicting emotions about her sudden loss.  At this point in time, when everything is raw and new, she sees her children as ‘… four relentless and dedicated orphans, demanding a formal come-back from her, the Mother Figure, whom they had discarded years ago.  It wasn’t fair.  Julia felt that she needed protection from them.’

The Small Widow is told using the third person omniscient perspective, which has been interspersed with Julia’s opinions and concerns.  In this way, McNeill makes us party to Julia’s innermost thoughts, and the secretive, one-sided conversations which she imagines with her husband: ‘I’ll do my mourning for you later, Harold.  Just now I am getting through this the best way I can.  You could have coped magnificently with my funeral, Harold.  I don’t know how to cope with yours.’  These asides continue throughout the book, and are particularly poignant when Julia considers her children.  Of her son, Johnnie, who lives in an outbuilding on her property, and runs a small bookshop, she thinks: ‘To him I’m not a person in the ordinary sense of the word.  I was typecast the minute the cord was cut.  I have been drained and diminished by motherhood.  I am a collection of attitudes, a pocket-sized matriarch whom it is traditional to have around…  It doesn’t help these self-made creatures to remember they are the children of my body.  I have done my job.  I am allowed, expected, to love them still, but at a decent distance.’

Julia’s concerns do not just affect her family.  Some of them are deeply personal, and seem trivial at first to outsiders.  She therefore keeps her grievances private, sometimes excruciatingly so.  She is forced to make all sorts of adjustments, and get used to the absence of things which she has grown so accustomed to throughout her long marriage.  For instance, ‘During the day the uninhabited area of the bed made her embarrassed.  One didn’t think of bereavement as posing problems like this.  One expected anguish, not embarrassment.  (I shall feel anguish in a week or two, Harold, just now there isn’t anything much that I feel.  It was puzzling to know what to do about the space here and all through the house that Harold used to occupy.  Presumably time would spill over and close the gaps, like the bark of a tree when it has been cut.’  She develops coping mechanisms; if she does not move from her place on the sofa or in bed for the entirety of the day, for example, ‘she wouldn’t notice that she was by herself.’

The Small Widow was first published in 1967, and was the only book which McNeill wrote whilst living outside Northern Ireland.  In the novel, she ‘anticipates many of the concerns of the 1970’s women’s movement in its awareness of the restricted role of women in the traditional family and marriage.’  I liked the way in which McNeill pushed against these limitations, giving Julia a voice and authority of her own, which built as the novel went on.  I found myself rooting for our central character, who rises above the opinions which others around her hold of women in her particular position, and the demands which they often make upon her.  The Small Widow feels far more modern, in many ways, than it is; Julia’s concerns are still prevalent in today’s society, particularly with regard to loneliness, and the shifting relationships between parents and their grown children.  The familial relationships here are revealing, and have a complexity to them; they shift both with time, and as a consequence of Julia finding her voice.

As a character portrait, The Small Widow is striking.  Throughout, Julia has a great deal of depth to her, and I found her surprising rather than predictable.  Her character arc alters  believably due to her circumstances.  On the basis of this well-sculpted novel, it is evident why one of her books has been published by Virago; it is just a shame that more haven’t followed suit.

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‘Blue Nights’ by Joan Didion ****

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.

9780007432905The 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.

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‘Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading’ by Nina Sankovitch ****

I was most excited when the copy of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading dropped through my letterbox.  It has been in my top twenty list of ‘please read soon!’ books since I found out about it, but I was unwilling to pay full price for a copy because I had read some rather unfavourable reviews of it.  If it was anything like Sankovitch’s second book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, however, I knew it would be a real treat.

9780061999857After the death of her sister Anne-Marie, the grieving author decided to ‘put all other obligations on hold and devote herself to reading a book a day: one year of magical reading in which she found joy, healing, and wisdom’.  Its blurb heralds it ‘a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading’; just the thing for bookworms.  Sankovitch began her year of reading on the 28th of October 2008, three years after her sister’s passing, for the following reasoning: ‘I looked back to what the two of us had shared.  Laughter.  Words.  Books…  That was how I wanted to use books: as an escape back to life.  I wanted to engulf myself in books and come up whole again’.  For Sankovitch, the catalyst is that she is approaching the age – forty-six – that Anne-Marie was when she died.

In undertaking her project, Sankovitch put several sanctions in place to ensure that she made the most of the year for which a similar opportunity in future may never come: ‘The rules for my year were simple: no author could be read more than once; I couldn’t re-read any books I’d already ready and I had to write about every book I read…  All the books would be ones I would have shared with Anne-Marie if I could have…’.  Sankovitch also chooses to read from the comfort of a purple chair, which she has had since pregnant with her eldest son.  She writes wonderfully about the very experience of getting to grips with a book: ‘For years, books had offered to me a window into how other people deal with life, its sorrows and joys and monotones and frustrations.  I would look there again for empathy, guidance, fellowship, and experience.  Books would give me all that and more…  My year of reading would be my escape back into life.’  As well as the experiences which her current projects bring her, Sankovitch weaves in familial memories, which makes her memoir all the stronger.  Her writing is bright and intelligent, and never feels forced or overdone.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair does tend to become a little cheesy at times – for example, the tendency to draw out morals from every book – but it is a great read, and a marvellous project to undertake.  Sankovitch’s book is about remembrance, as well as forging new memories with the books which she has chosen to include during her project.  I would personally love to undertake something just like this; I tend to average around a book a day, but I do not read as methodically as Sankovitch does.  This is partly, I think, because I do not choose what I read based on whether it is of a manageable length to get through in a day, as she does.  I can spend a week reading something long (hello, Dostoevsky), and then get through seven or eight novellas in a weekend.  I read as often as I can, but sometimes life gets in the way.  Kudos, then, to Sankovitch’s husband and four sons, who allowed her the freedom to do what she most wanted to; they allowed her to grieve in a constructive way, and from what she writes of her reflections, it seems as though she got an awful lot from the process.

Just a tiny niggle; I would have liked to see the list of read books in chronological rather than alphabetical order.  I was interested in the journey which she took from one tome to another, and how one choice perhaps led onto another.  Whilst she does not even mention a lot of the books which she read, those which she does discuss are varied and interesting.

The enduring message for me is as follows: ‘I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much’.

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‘Comfort: A Journey Through Grief’ by Ann Hood *****

I hadn’t heard a lot about Comfort: A Journey Through Grief before I decided to buy it; I did so because as far as retrospective illness narratives go, it was unlike anything I’d read before.  I have come across and loved a couple of accounts of women who sadly miscarry, and those who have lost adults (husbands or sisters, for instance) to terrible diseases, but I haven’t read anything about the loss of a child.  In Comfort, Hood writes about the death and its aftermath of her five-year-old daughter Grace, who passed away from a virulent form of strep throat.  In doing so, she also encompasses Grace’s short but worthy life; she writes of her daughter’s favourite activities, and the little quirks which were already such a part of her. 9780393336597

From the outset, I knew it would be honest and heartbreaking.  Hood launches the reader, and herself, into the deep end at the book’s very outset; in the harrowing prologue of Comfort, she runs through the supposed ‘coping techniques’ which have been recommended to her, from drinking single malt whisky and taking regular courses of drugs such as Prozac, to reading memoirs about the grief of others.  As she writes of this last course of action, ‘But none of them lost Grace.  They do not know what it is to lose Grace’.

Comfort is, of course, incredibly emotional; one can feel Hood’s pain and anguish from its opening paragraph.  Some of the details were repetitive, but there was a therapeutic element to this; it seemed crucial for Hood to mention different elements or happenings at intervals, just in order to convince herself that everything had happened, and to reinforce the impact which her young daughter had had on people, both in terms of Hood’s nuclear family, and in the wider world.

I very rarely cry whilst reading (yes, I’m one of those people), but Comfort brought me to tears on several occasions.  Hood’s work is so candid, so honest; it felt like a real privilege to read.  I can only hope that the writing process gave Hood some comfort, and that my paltry review will encourage others to read it whilst also putting across how important this book was to me.

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