The Adversary**** I really enjoy true crime as a genre, and after reading Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, I have been making more of a concerted effort to read it. I was swept into Emmanuel Carrere’s The Adversary immediately. Throughout, the author recounts the case of Jean-Claude Romand, a pathological liar, who masqueraded as a doctor for 18 years. He killed his wife, Florence, and children, Antoine and Caroline, before going on to murder his parents and their dog, in the Alps in January 1993, just as his deception was about to be found out. He also tried to kill his mistress.
I read a great deal of this whilst sitting in the sunshine, which seemed an odd contrast to the dark and complex story which Carrere unwinds. The information here has been well handled, and the whole is translated wonderfully. Carrere throughout is an observer; he writes about how the case makes him feel at different points, and how he views Romand. His account is a human and an open one, and he pulls together a timeline of Romand’s crimes, as well as his trial as it unfolds. The Adversary is a great example of the true crime genre, and a highly recommended read.
Other Lives But Mine ***
Emmanuel Carrère and his partner, journalist Hélène, were on the verge of separating when they travelled to Sri Lanka over Christmas 2004. With their two small sons in tow, they were taken aback when the tsunami struck, taking with it their friend’s young daughter, Juliette. At the same time, Hélène’s beloved sister, back in France, has been given a terminal cancer diagnosis.
Translated from the original French by Linda Coverdale, Other Lives But Mine begins with the shock of the tsunami, ‘documenting the dramatic effects that [both] deaths have on those around them.’ The author goes on to chart several different elements, such as the legal practice of Hélène’s sister’s colleague, which I personally found less interesting.
I appreciated the author’s descriptions, which are striking in their poetry. He captures the brooding seconds before the tsunami strikes vividly: ‘The next scene: a small gathering of guests and staff on a terrace at the end of the hotel grounds, looking out over the ocean. Curiously enough, nothing seems amiss at first… Then you start to notice how strange things really are. The water seems so far away… There is no sound; no breath of air rustles the fronds of the coconut palms.’ After the water has struck, wreaking its havoc, he notices: ‘The moment we pass the hill and reach the plain, we discover that to one side everything is normal – trees, flowers, low walls, small shops – while on the other it’s sheer devastation, a mire of blackish mud like a lava flow.’
Other Lives But Mine depicts, of course, an important and quite poignant reflection of an horrific natural disaster. Had the prose focused solely on this, I would have found it far more engaging. However, despite the breadth of topics here, Carrère is undoubtedly skilled at linking together quite different topics, and moving between them.
I picked up Hisham Matar’s travel memoir, A Month in Siena, from a lovely little honesty bookshop located at the stunning Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire. I hadn’t heard of the title before, but its bright orange spine really caught my eye.
When I began to read, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, as I was unfamiliar with Matar’s work. He is highly praised; of one of his other books, The Return, the late, great Hilary Mantel commented: ‘Hisham Matar has the quality of all historians – of the world and the self – most need: he knows how to stand back and let the past speak.’ Of the same book, Zadie Smith wrote: ‘Wise and agonizing and thrilling to read’, and Kazuo Ishiguro called it a ‘moving, unflinching memoir.’ One of his novels, In the Country of Men, was shortlisted for the Man Booker, and won six international awards; he also won a Pulitzer Prize for The Return. I therefore decided that Matar was something of a Big Deal, albeit one I had heard little about.
When Matar was 19 years old, his ‘life was shattered by the disappearance of his father’, who was kidnapped in Cairo, Egypt, and never found. In the same year, he ‘became transfixed by the work of the great artists of Siena’, Italy, whose work spanned the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Twenty-five years later, he travelled to Siena; this marked, says the book’s blurb, ‘the encounter… between the writer and the city he had admired from afar.’ It goes on to state that A Month in Siena is ‘a dazzling evocation of an extraordinary place and its effect on the writer’s life… a consideration of grief and a profoundly moving contemplation of the relationship between art and the human condition.’
The catalyst for Matar in finally visiting Siena was a trip to Libya, ‘the place where I grew up, the country of my origin, the setting-off place from where I had travelled’. In the introduction, he notes the sudden surprising anxiety which his decision instilled within him: ‘But now that I was finally going, my mind began to devise ways of delaying my arrival. It was as though the long years of anticipation had created a reticence.’
I personally do not read enough books about art; this is something which I would like to focus on more in my reading in the near future. Matar’s book opened my eyes to the sheer amount of detail which can be picked out from a painting or mural, and the profound impact which one work can have. He writes, for example: ‘A picture changes as you look at it and changes in ways that are unexpected. I have discovered that a painting requires time. How it takes me several months and more often than not a year before I can move on. During that period the picture becomes a mental as well as a physical location in my life.’ He later adds: ‘The colours, delicate patterns and suspended drama of these pictures gradually became necessary to me.’
Matar’s writing is enchanting, and I was drawn in to this short but illuminating book. One of my favourite moments of the whole is when Matar writes about the sheer wonder of seeing artwork from the Sienese School of painting in real life, and the way in which the movement inspired so much of the art which followed: ‘To look closely at their work is to eavesdrop on one of the most captivating conversations in the history of art, one concerned with what a painting might be, what it might be for, and what it could do and accomplish within the intimate drama of a private engagement with a stranger.’
Another element which I enjoyed are his observations on the city of Siena itself, although I do wish more attention had been paid to this throughout. I would have loved to read more sentences like this beguiling and nostalgia-inducing one, recorded when he first arrived in the city with his wife, Diana: ‘The sharp turns of the passageways and the closeness of the buildings gave me the sense that I was entering a living organism. With every step I pressed deeper into it and, as though in response, it made room. I was inside a place both known and deeply unfamiliar.’
Matar is an excellent guide, both to the physical city, and to the art he so admires. A Month in Siena is rich and evocative, although I found it rather a brief account. So much is considered, with something of a poet’s gaze, but I would have liked more emphasis to be placed upon particular scenes and ideas at times. I have certainly learnt a great deal about the Sienese School, and parts of this memoir were quite revealing; I just wish it had been a bit longer.
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.
I have been lucky enough to travel quite extensively in Italy, but Florence is a city I’ve not yet visited (at least at the time of writing). I adore travel writing, and whilst it was one of the things which got me through one lockdown after another when real-life travel was banned, I had not encountered much of it in my 2022 reading life. That changed, however, when I found a slim copy of Diana Athill’s A Florence Diary in my local library.
These 64 pages are filled with ‘a charming and vivacious’ account of Athill’s trip to Florence during the late 1940s, alongside photographs taken in Florence during this period. At the time of its publication in 2016, the book was a ‘recently discovered gem’. It provides, says its blurb, ‘a vibrant portrait of one of the most beautiful and beloved cities in the world.’
In her retrospective introduction, Athill notes that this is the only diary she ever wrote, when asked to by her mother, who subsequently ‘preserved’ it: ‘My mother didn’t just read it, but even edited it a little: tiny corrections in her handwriting occur here and there.’ Of the city, she comments: ‘Florence didn’t feel like home. Its great charm lay in its unlikeliness to home – in its being enchantingly “elsewhere”. And I am forever grateful that it was my very first “elsewhere”.’
During the summer of 1947, Athill and her cousin, Pen, took the Golden Arrow train to Florence for a fortnight. The holiday was paid for by their aunt, as a celebration of the end of the Second World War, and marked the first time Athill had been out of Britain. Of herself and Pen, she comments: ‘We could hardly have been more different from one another but we travelled together as comfortably as a pair of old bedroom slippers.’
There are many comical scenes here, particularly with regard to the girls’ long train journey from central London. When their journey begins, ‘Pen didn’t register any luggage, and although her stuff was small it was very numerous, and largely tied together with insecure pieces of string. It included a smart white straw hat with blue veil, a collection of canvases, and a vicious easel which poked people in the eye at every move and kept on losing legs.’
Alongside the humour are some wonderful reminiscences too. Athill notes, breathily: ‘Everything is so beautiful that even not “doing” anything special is marvellous.’ What I particularly enjoyed here were the glimpses Athill gives into a very specific and particular period in time, when Europe was rebuilding following years of war. Of a trip to the Accademia di Belle Arti, for instance, the cousins see ‘a special exhibition of pictures that were wrecked in the war and which they are restoring… They are working miracles on them. Things that were blistered fragments are made almost whole again.’ I also appreciated the almost self-deprecating way in which Athill spoke of their actions. On Wednesday the 28th of August, for example, she wrote: ‘We left the Hotel Bonciani this morning, in a shower of gold. From our enormous popularity at the end, we deduce that we must, as usual, have over-tipped like mad.’ She comments on everything she sees, flattering or otherwise: ‘Everyone seems to adore their babies, and they spoil them and pet them and dress them up beautifully, but the minute one of the poor little things begins to go to sleep, they sweep on it and poke it and jog it and throw it in the air and bandy it about from hand to hand and coo and chuck and sing, until it is a wonder that any Italian child survives infancy.’
Athill’s writing is splendid, and she knows just the right tone to strike at every point. She beautifully notes the following partway into her stay: ‘Nobody seems to use the loggia much, we can’t think why. When I came up this evening after dinner, I almost gasped at the beauty of it. There is a moon and the sky is velvet blue, and the lights on the hill opposite are reflected in long wavering streaks in the velvet blue Arno…’.
Perhaps shamefully, I had only read a single one of Athill’s books prior to A Florence Diary, Persephone-published Midsummer Night at the Workhouse. A Florence Diary has cemented that I really need to get to more of her oeuvre, and soon. A Florence Diary is a rather charming piece of important social history, which transported me right to Italy. The joy of travelling, and of exploring somewhere new, is expressed so lovingly, and with such gratitude. I only wish it had been three times as long!
Leanne Hall’s The Gaps really caught my attention, and when I began to read, I struggled to put it down. Centred around a school in Australia, and dealing with some incredibly pertinent issues, such as poverty and homelessness, with both sensitivity and realism, I found The Gaps to be very far indeed from a typical young adult novel. The characters are incredibly realistic, and each has a distinct voice. I very much look forward to reading whatever Hall turns her attention to next.
2. A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe
A Nail, A Rose is a fascinating collection of short stories, collected from across Belgian author Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s writing life. I thoroughly enjoyed the prose style, and found that the translation has been handled wonderfully. I particularly admired the focus upon women, their inner lives, and outer mundanity of the day-to-day (something which I have been interested in for many years). Some of the stories here are truly excellent. I just wish this had been a lot longer!
3. Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You by Kate Gross
I seem to be reviewing a lot of books of late which I have never heard of, but which catch my eye in my local library. Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You by Kate Gross is one such tome. At the age of 34, Gross, who worked for both Labour Party Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. She passed away on Christmas morning, 2014, leaving behind her husband and young twin sons. Late Fragments is her searingly honest memoir, which deals with so many elements of her disease, as well as recapturing something of her earlier life. Gross’ writing is beautiful, and highly reflective, as one might expect.
4. With Teeth by Kristen Arnett
Kristen Arnett’s second novel is smart, acerbic, and witty. The story centres around two married women, who live in Florida with their terror of a son. In With Teeth, Arnett focuses on the breakdown of relationships. Her observations are sharp and realistic, and she deals with several deep topics throughout. If you are looking to pick up a very focused character study, I would highly recommend seeking out this novel.
5. Fry’s Ties: The Life and Times of a Tie Collection by Stephen Fry
If you are going to pick up this rather niche book, all about British hero Stephen Fry’s extensive tie collection, I highly recommend listening to the audiobook, narrated throughout in the author’s velvety tones. Before coming to this, I had no idea that anyone could make ties something akin to fascinating to a woman who has never worn one. Fry managed this feat, however. There is a lot about fashion history here, which I very much appreciated, and I found it entertaining from start to finish. Fry is excellent company for both hobbies and chores around the house, and I truly wish this book had been a longer listen!
6. Letter to My Rage: An Evolution by Lidia Yuknavitch
Lidia Yuknavitch’s Letter to My Rage is an incredibly short essay, which sings with both amusement and sardonic comments. I found Yuknavitch’s commentary incredibly current and to the point. She is also incredibly anti-Trump, which is always welcome to this reader. Highly pertinent, dark, and visceral, Letter to My Rage is revealing of its author. I also enjoyed it far more than her fiction.
Helen Thomas’ Under Storm’s Wing is one of those books which I have wanted to read for years, but which has proved difficult to get hold of; in this case, copies were unaffordable. I finally managed to find a secondhand edition of the Carcanet publication for less than £10, which may well be my bargain of the year.
Under Storm’s Wing is a veritable treasure trove. It brings together two volumes of memoir – As It Was, and World Without End – Helen’s letters, written between 1896 and 1917, A Remembered Harvest, and a selection of recollections of her youngest daughter Myfanwy. Helen’s husband, Edward Thomas, is one of my favourite poets, and whilst I knew a little about Helen before I picked this up, I was gratified that it was highly illuminating.
As It Was (1926) takes as its focus Helen and Edward’s early relationship and marriage, and was written soon after he was killed during the First World War at the Battle of Arras, France, in 1917. The first of her memoirs ends with the birth of their first son, Merfyn. World Without End was written several years afterwards, in 1931. Helen’s second memoir covers a wider span of time than her first.
As It Was begins with Helen speaking expansively about her childhood: ‘Our life was very happy, very social, very united. We were unconventional, though in no startling way – just informal and unselfconscious.’ She then reveals when she first met Edward, after her literary reviewer father is asked to read some of his work, and invites him to the house. Helen describes her first meeting with the ‘shy and constrained’ Edward, noticing that his ‘eyes were grey and dreamy and meditative, but fearless and steady, and as if trying to pierce the truth itself. It was a most striking face, recalling a portrait of Shelley in its sensitive, melancholy beauty.’
Helen captures similarly lovely moments throughout. She writes, for instance: ‘I remember in that first walk how we scrambled about in a little roadside copse. It must have been winter or early spring, for the trees were bare, and Edward showed me many old nests, telling me the names of the birds which had made them, and pointing out to me their special characteristics. Later on he brought me as a present a most beautifully compact, moss-covered nest of a chaffinch, which I could hardly believe was the work of a bird, and all my wonder pleased and amused him in his grave way.’ She goes on: ‘And all his knowledge of everything we saw, and all his intimacy – everything lifted me at once into a new world.’
Throughout, I admired Helen’s honesty. She shows herself as a bold and daring young woman. She is revealing about her innermost self, about the intimacies she shared with Edward, and her naïve ideas regarding sex and desire. She recalls, with vivid clarity: ‘I had often cried bitterly in the thought that no man could ever love me, and that my longing for children would never be satisfied. I had so persuaded myself of this that it never entered my mind as a possibility until that moment when Edward took my hand; and even then I did not consciously think of love; all I felt was an unrest, a fear, a thrill, perhaps also a hope.’
The depictions here regarding Edward’s ever-present struggles with mental health are revealing. Helen tells us: ‘There were many dark periods when we were here [living on a farm in the Weald of Kent], many days of silence and wretchedness and separation, for sometimes in these moods Edward would stride away, perhaps for days, wrestling with the devil that tormented his spirit.’
Helen’s writing is beautiful, filled with glorious and expansive descriptions. On their honeymoon spent in Wiltshire, she reflects: ‘We washed in rain-water… Outside the owls hooted about the cottage, and bats twittered, and starlings stirred in the thatch. No other sound was to be heard, no trams, no people, no traffic, nothing but the sounds that do not spoil silence, but rather deepen it, and a little breeze wandering through the wood, and a leaf flapping against our window.’
Myfanwy’s contribution is an excerpt from her longer memoir, One of These Fine Days. Myfanwy also contributed the preface to this volume, which was first collected together in 1988. She recollects that her mother wrote both volumes of her memoir ‘as therapy, to try to rouse [her] from the terrible lethargy and desolation which followed Edward’s death…’.
Under Storm’s Wing is a wonderful anthology, and I found it to be far more open than I would expect of a book written during this period. There is much written about the natural world, and Helen’s discovery of the countryside after spending her entire childhood in towns and cities. Under Storm’s Wing is a touching, moving, and thoughtful collection, and is a book to really linger over.
I spotted Julietta Singh’s memoir, The Breaks, whilst browsing on Daunt Books’ website, and just had to read it. The book has been published by Daunt as part of their Originals list, and it has been incredibly well received. In its blurb, reviewers compare it to James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew, and herald it a tender, and ‘beautiful’ coming-of-age story.
The Breaks is an extended letter, written by Singh to her young daughter. Her aim is to ‘write towards a new vision of the world, inspired by her child’s radical embrace of possibility as a model for how we might live’. Wrapped up in the entire narrative is a commentary on the climate change which threatens our existence, and which she believes her daughter will experience the full effects of during her life. She says: ‘I am writing to you, and to future you. I am writing to the six-year-old girl you are now… I am writing to the becoming-being that you are, the one who will face a world in ruin and undoubtedly wonder over my place in all this destruction.’ Singh believes that if we are able, globally, to ‘survive the looming political and ecological disasters, we must break from the conventions we have inherited and begin to orient ourselves towards more equitable and revolutionary paths.’
Along with the ever-present threat of climate change, Singh also examines ‘the violent legacies of racism, patriarchy, and colonialism’, and the effects which all of these have already had in her daughter’s young life. The narrative opens with an account of her daughter being taught ‘a whitewashed story at school about how the first people of this land were happy to give their sacred spaces to the consumptive force of European men in the name of civilisation and progress.’ She proceeds to tell her daughter this story rather differently: ‘I will never forget the way you looked at me then, your head slightly tilted to one side, your eyes wide in bewilderment… This is not what my teacher told us, you said with unmistakable agitation. I know that for the first time you were confronting the existence of conflicting worldviews, a vital gulf between your formal education and your maternal one.’
Throughout, Singh has a real awareness of what ties herself to her daughter. She reflects, for instance: ‘Our blood is laced with modern histories of unbelievable violence. It is a strange and hybrid brew that you will feel in your body across your life, as I have always felt it in mine.’ Throughout, I really enjoyed her discussions about the physical body in the world, and the differing versions of history which can exist everywhere – in textbooks, in films and cartoons, and in the education system, to name just a few examples.
Another of the real strengths in The Breaks is the commentary Singh gives to the meaning of identity, and how difficult this can be to pin down. Her own family history is rich, and complicated. ‘Being as diasporic as we are,’ she says, ‘I find I have no traditional knowledge to bestow upon you, no single spiritual or cultural heritage that will reach back to precolonial ways of being and knowing.’ She writes about the ‘stolen lands’ where she was born, her father’s Indian heritage, her mother’s European one, and her experiences of growing up in Canada, before moving to the United States. For Singh, home is a concept which she has not often experienced; until she begins a deep friendship with a queer man, Nathan, who will become her daughter’s father. They live together, in a house converted to have two separate living spaces, and coparent. She writes: ‘I have only just begin to feel this home-feeling with you, with your father, in our everyday acts of collective world-making. For the first time, I wonder whether I need to stop drifting, not so much in body as in spirit… To live here, right where we are, and to articulate that living by learning who and how and when and why we have all come to live here, to belong here.’
Singh is open about the challenges of parenting her young daughter in their home in Richmond, Virginia. Early on in her memoir, she comments: ‘Learning to mother at the end of the world is an infinite toggle between wanting to make you feel safe and needing you to know that the earth and its inhabitants are facing a catastrophic crisis.’ She is also aware that one day, her relationship with her daughter will shift, inescapably; she writes: ‘It is less the inevitability of our break than it is the shape and force of it that haunts me. I know it is not just me you will need to break from, but the entire way of life that I represent… More than any other time in history, what you choose from the past will need to be meticulously studied and selected.’
These breaks which Singh talks about also manifest literally. Whilst writing her memoir, she was recovering from major surgery, when doctors found that the discs between her vertebrae had begun to ‘explode, making it appear… as though my body is being subjected to high-impact collisions.’
The Breaks is ‘both a celebration of queer family-making, communal living and Brown girlhood and a profound meditation on race, inheritance and queer mothering at the end of the world.’ Singh, as this quote on the book’s blurb suggests, encompasses so much within her book, but she does so with intelligence, and captures everything in beautiful, contemplative prose.
The Breaks is intense, intriguing, and so worthwhile. The narrative, given that it was only published in 2021, is incredibly current; she references other challenges which we face on a global scale, such as the pandemic. The way in Singh she directs her articulate speech to her daughter throughout gives it a further sense of urgency. Singh is articulate, and gives voice to the many difficulties which the next generation are sure to face. The Breaks is heavily rooted in existentialism, and what it means to be alive today. Singh gives just as much thought, though, to how – and if – we can possibly move forwards.
I will end this review with something wonderful that Singh’s daughter said, as quite a young child. At the age of five, she declared: ‘If I was president… I would give everyone a place to live for free. I would make gardens all throughout the city that would grow food to feed us all. I would give everyone enough clothes to wear, and make sure their outfits suited their style. I’d make sure everyone had a friend.’ If the next generation is filled with wonderfully compassionate people like this, perhaps the world does have a chance to save itself, after all.
Malaysian anthropologist Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods: Overcoming Grief Through Nature is a meditation on grief, and how nature helped her to regain some of the joy in life. The memoir centres around the sudden death of her Norwegian husband, Eiolf Olsen, in 2010. The pair had been married for thirty-two years, when she received the news that Eiolf had collapsed at work in his Oslo office, and could not be resuscitated. Long was understandably bereft, ‘disoriented, aimless, lost.’ It is only when she chooses to wander ‘deep into the woods and attunes herself to Nature’s chorus that she learns how the wild might restore us to hope, and to life after death.’
I love blends of memoir and the natural world, and was immediately drawn to this tome. I have found a lot of solace in nature myself, particularly during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. I was particularly interested in the way in which Long found solace in learning about mushrooms, with the help of various Norwegian associations. She first signed up to an introductory mushroom-picking course run by the Natural History Museum in Oslo, where she meets others from all walks of life: ‘Like all other communities, mushroom pickets represent a microcosm of society as a whole, although I didn’t see this to begin with.’ Something was sparked within her to continue on her journey of learning. She took the ‘inspector’s exam’, which has existed in Norway since 1952, and she is now a certified mycology professional. For Long, passing this exam was a ‘rite of passage’.
At the outset of her memoir, Long writes: ‘My new interest in mycology brought joy and meaning to my life at a time when everything looked very dark.’ She goes on to write that her concept for the book underwent many changes before publication: ‘… the link between my exploration of the world of fungi and my wandering through the wilderness of grief seemed to be the most interesting story here. So this book tells of two parallel journeys: an outer one, into the realm of mushrooms, and an inner one, through the landscape of mourning.’ She tells us that the study of fungi ‘offered my fresh perspectives and led me, little by little, to a new standpoint.’
Long’s prose is beautiful, particularly when she weaves in her descriptions of the natural world: ‘It is very easy, I find, to be lured deeper and deeper into the dark forest and suddenly find one’s self alone and surrounded by huge trees, with no obvious way back. At such times, it is not hard to imagine that you can hear the trees whispering to one another that they are going to catch this little mushroom gatherer with their long branches.’ I also really enjoyed the calm which she portrayed; when looking for mushrooms, you have to use all of your focus, ‘turn off your mobile phone… and simply be there – in the woods.’
Throughout, Long speaks of her grief, and her disbelief about Eiolf’s death, with raw honesty. She says: ‘I wanted to suffer every ounce of the torment… It was confirmation that he had lived, that he had been my husband. I did not want that to be gone as well.’ Later, she adds: ‘Life doesn’t end in a single moment, with one last gasp for breath. Death is made up of thousands of little moments, divine in their banality. They are so precious and I treasure every one of them.’ Following Eiolf’s funeral, she painfully remembers the following: ‘I went willingly into an inner exile. My sorrow swelled until it took over my life. I was swamped by grief: I woke in the morning, but had no desire to get up. I viewed the world through one single, solitary peephole, that of loss and pain… The end of a great era in my life was a fact.’ Her grief prompts Long to ask endless questions of herself, even whether she should stay in Norway, where she has lived for the majority of her life. She asks such things as: ‘Who am I now? I can’t live the life I once had, but I don’t know how my new life should be… I don’t really know what I’m looking for.’
Long describes, in detail, the many effects of her grief, from the complete numbing of her senses and loss of appetite, to insomnia. She no longer has interest in things which used to bring her joy, like reading, or music: ‘The shock of Eiolf’s death had plunged me into a deep well and apathy settled over me like a thick blanket that I couldn’t kick off.’
Mushrooms are used for so much in the modern world: as the basis for drugs essential for organ transplantation and cancer treatment; as natural dyes for yarn; as a source of inspiration for nature photographers; as food. The world of fungi is vast, and it is difficult even for experts to pinpoint the numbers of different species around the world. In Norway, Long imparts, 44,000 species have been recorded: fungi make up almost 20% of this total, whereas only 0.2% are mammals. There are such differences between them, too. As Long writes: ‘… fungi present a riotous cornucopia: mushrooms come not only in brown and white, but in every imaginable, and unimaginable, shape and hue. They may be stubby and springy, lovely and graceful, delicate and transparent, or so spectacular and bizarre that they seem like something from another planet.’
Long is open about how her new interest soon became a passion, and the positive effects which it had upon her. She is keen to share her experiences, telling us: ‘With each new mushroom I learned to identify, every new site I visited, and every new mushroom buddy I made, I gradually became more integrated into the community. And, although I didn’t know it, each of these experiences represented another tiny mouse-step towards the end of the black tunnel of mourning.’
The Way Through the Woods was originally published in Norwegian, and has been flawlessly translated into English by Barbara J. Haveland. The book was longlisted for the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in 2019, and contains a ‘mushroom register’ in its appendix, along with an extensive bibliography and notes section. There are also charming illustrations scattered throughout the narrative, all of which were drawn by the author.
The narrative has been cleverly arranged, split into more measured sections which focus heavily upon mycology, and other, more emotional chapters about her relationship with Eiolf, and her place in the world after his death. Both are shown in different fonts. Ideas between the two inevitably overlap, but I did find this to be an interesting technique.
The Way Through the Woods is highly expansive, both in terms of the memories it relates, and its nature writing. I found Long to be an utterly charming narrator, and particularly loved the scene in which she describes a mushroom which she has been seeking for a long time: ‘This discovery seemed totally undeserved, like being allowed to lap up the vanilla custard filling without having to eat the rest of the bun first.’ Long is an excellent writer, blending serious subjects, and a real keenness for the world around her, with humour. She shares with us moments big and lifechanging, and small and comforting. The mycology here is very specific, but other themes – death, loss, grief, healing – are universal.
… but have not written reviews for. Because I read as often as I can, but have a full-time job, there are many books I would like to review, but sadly don’t get chance to. I thought I would collect a few of these together so that they don’t fall through the cracks. Their content is relatively varied, but these are just a few titles which I have thoroughly enjoyed this year, and would highly recommend. As ever, let me know if you have read any of these, or if they pique your interest.
In and Out of the Garden by Sara Midda (1982; non-fiction; gardens and growing; charming illustrations; beautifully put together)
‘Sara Midda’s richly illustrated In and Out of the Garden has delighted readers and critics alike. Diana Vreeland praised it as “delightful and delicious,” and Laura Ashley called it “pure inspiration.”
The most elegant and subtle of books to give and to have, it evokes the English gardens of Sara Midda’s childhood, sowing the imagination with glorious images. Dozens and dozens of illustrations and tender reflections recall a hut in the wood, or a topiary maze, a summer day spent podding peas, or an herb patch that yields Biblical fragrances. Ruby-red radishes are the jewels of the underworld. Myriad colors fall upon warm green moss. Painted with Sara Midda’s fine brush, it is a book of lasting enchantment.’
2. Raising a Rare Girl by Heather Lanier (2020; memoir; illness narrative; rare genetic disorder; heartfelt and honest)
‘Award-winning writer Heather Lanier’s memoir about raising a child with a rare syndrome, defying the tyranny of normal, and embracing parenthood as a spiritual practice that breaks us open in the best of ways.
Like many women of her generation, Heather Lanier did everything by the book when she was expecting her first child. She ate organic foods, recited affirmations, and drew up a birth plan for an unmedicated labor in the hopes that she could create a SuperBaby, an ultra-healthy human destined for a high-achieving future.
But her daughter Fiona challenged all of Lanier’s preconceptions. Born with an ultra-rare syndrome known as Wolf-Hirschhorn, Fiona received a daunting prognosis: she would experience significant developmental delays and might not reach her second birthday. Not only had Lanier failed to produce a SuperBaby, she now fiercely loved a child that the world would sometimes reject. The diagnosis obliterated Lanier’s perfectionist tendencies, along with her most closely held beliefs about certainty, vulnerability, God, and love.
With tiny bits of mozzarella cheese, a walker rolled to library story time, a talking iPad app, and a whole lot of pop and reggae, mother and daughter spend their days doing whatever it takes to give Fiona nourishment, movement, and language. They also confront society’s attitudes toward disability and the often cruel assumptions made about Fiona’s worth. Lanier realizes the biggest question is not, Will my daughter walk or talk? but, How can I best love my girl, just as she is?
Loving Fiona opens Lanier up to new understandings of what it means to be human, what it takes to be a mother, and above all, the aching joy and wonder that come from embracing the unique life of her rare girl.’
3. Lily’s Promise by Lily Ebert and Dov Forman (2021; memoir; Holocaust; honest, heartwrenching, and hopeful)
‘When Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert was liberated in 1945, a Jewish-American soldier gave her a banknote on which he’d written ‘Good luck and happiness’. And when her great-grandson, Dov, decided to use social media to track down the family of the GI, 96-year-old Lily found herself making headlines round the world. Lily had promised herself that if she survived Auschwitz she would tell everyone the truth about the camp. Now was her chance.
In Lily’s Promise she writes movingly about her happy childhood in Hungary, the death of her mother and two youngest siblings on their arrival at Auschwitz in 1944 and her determination to keep her two other sisters safe. She describes the inhumanity of the camp and the small acts of defiance that gave her strength. From there she and her sisters became slave labour in a munitions factory, and then faced a death march that they barely survived.
Lily lost so much, but she built a new life for herself and her family, first in Israel and then in London. It wasn’t easy; the pain of her past was always with her, but this extraordinary woman found the strength to speak out in the hope that such evil would never happen again.’
4. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (2019; novel set in the 1980s; family saga; interesting characters and dynamics)
‘Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, rookie NYPD cops, are neighbors in the suburbs. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the explosive events to come.
In Mary Beth Keane’s extraordinary novel, a lifelong friendship and love blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next thirty years. Heartbreaking and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes is a gorgeous and generous portrait of the daily intimacies of marriage and the power of forgiveness.’
5.Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories, edited by Audrey Niffenegger (2015; short stories; wonderfully curated; varied content; great illustrations)
‘Collected and introduced by the bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry–including Audrey Niffenegger’s own fabulous new illustrations for each piece, and a new story by her–this is a unique and haunting anthology of some of the best ghost stories of all time.
From Edgar Allan Poe to Kelly Link, M.R. James to Neil Gaiman, H.H. Munro to Audrey Niffenegger herself, Ghostly reveals the evolution of the ghost story genre with tales going back to the eighteenth century and into the modern era, ranging across styles from Gothic Horror to Victorian, stories about haunting–haunted children, animals, houses. Every story is introduced by Audrey Niffenegger, an acclaimed master of the craft, with some words on its background and why she chose to include it. Audrey’s own story is “A Secret Life With Cats.”
Perfect for the classic and contemporary ghost story aficionado, this is a delightful volume, beautifully illustrated by Audrey, who is a graphic artist with great vision. Ghostly showcases the best of the best in the field, including Edith Wharton, P.G. Wodehouse, A.S. Byatt, Ray Bradbury, and so many more.’
6. The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman (2019; historical fiction; magical realism; creative; beautifully written)
‘In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.
Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.
What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.’
I have wanted to read Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World for quite some time. I was reminded of Rapp’s memoir when reading Heather Lanier’s Raising a Rare Girl, which tells of her experiences with her daughter’s very rare condition, Wolf–Hirshhorn syndrome. Rapp’s book revolves around her young son, Ronan, who was diagnosed with a degenerative, and always fatal, disorder named Tay–Sachs disease when he was less than a year old. In The Still Point of the Turning World, Rapp recounts her ‘journey through grief and beyond it’.
Ronan, the only child of Rapp and her husband, lived a happy early life in New Mexico. However, his parents became concerned that he was not meeting his developmental milestones. Ronan’s paediatrician believed that it might be a simple issue with his vision. During a trip to the ophthalmologist, ‘cherry-red spots on the back of his retinas’ were found; this is a red-flag for Tay–Sachs. His parents were given his diagnosis when he was nine months old, and were heartbreakingly told that there was no cure, and no treatment for his condition. The disease stops nerves from working properly, and those diagnosed rarely live past the age of four. There are many stages of the disease: ‘… paralysis, blindness, deafness, spasticity, seizures, death.’
Rapp describes, in vivid prose, her panic at this moment: ‘The situation didn’t fit; it wasn’t right. My brain was broken; my heart was stopped. How could I still be alive, in this room, having been given this knowledge? It was grotesque and absurd and could not be happening.’ Later, she recalls: ‘I stopped wailing, except at night, when I would cry myself into a pit and then sleep there, shallowly. When I woke up, I felt as if I’d spent the night in a cold, skinny ditch by the side of some lonely road. Every morning the sky was bright blue… the trees along the walking trail outside our house still bare, everything brown. The world blue-brown but black, like a bruise. We felt beat up, pressed down. The world had a wild, new, terrifying clarity.’
Rapp begins her memoir: ‘This is a love story, which, like all great love stories, is ultimately a story of loss.’ Prior to his diagnosis, she tells us, she had many expectations for her son, and what he would go on to achieve in his long and healthy life: ‘Like his father, he would complete crossword puzzles in record time. Like me he would be physically fearless and an adventurous eater. He’d be fun but levelheaded, loyal and fair and smart… Maybe he would invent something world changing or build space rockets or become a fashion designer who made clothes from recycled trash.’
Throughout, Rapp displays all of her vulnerabilities. She writes with such honesty and clarity, despite her immense pain: ‘My time with Ronan was short and beautiful and shot through with light, laughter and, above all, a kind of love that stripped me to the bone.’ She describes at length the impossibility of reconciling her happy baby with his lack of future. She reveals: ‘Even though I loved being with Ronan, it was also true that when I looked at him, I felt myself sliding into the place where crying would only dig a deeper, darker pit.’ The way in which she describes her son, and her grief following his diagnosis, is beautifully evoked: ‘I allowed myself to imagine Ronan in a landscape of light and continuous revelation, his life lived as a series of singular moments.’
Throughout, I really admired Rapp’s prose style. Her writing is open and honest, highly intelligent, philosophical, and raw. She describes her life as: ‘A constant tug of war: wanting to remember, wanting to forget; wanting this to be over, and of course never wanting Ronan’s life to end.’ Rapp also discusses at length the value and quality of life, and whether either can be truly quantified, as it all depends on circumstance and situation. ‘But what did that mean,’ she asks, ‘life is about living? What did it mean really? Was I saying that when my child could no longer think, that he was no longer a person? That, too, was a complicated question.’ She goes on: ‘Our family faced gruesome choices: how would we know when Ronan’s quality of life had diminished to the point where letting him go was the more humane option? Was it when he stopped swallowing and vocalizing, when he could no longer see us or experience our loving touch?’
Rapp discusses everything not just from a personal standpoint, as a mother trying to process the imminent death of her baby, but also from a wider, ethical one: ‘These decisions are made more emotionally complicated by the fact that the medical community in this country [the USA] has become expert at prolonging life to the point of being unwilling or unable to engage in any nuanced discussion about what it is they’re saving.’ She also touches upon religion, and the end-of-life stage.
Some of Rapp’s phrasing, whilst clearly relating to her own and her son’s situation, is applicable to our lives in the modern world, no matter what we may face: ‘We want will; we think relentless self-improvement will literally improve our lives, allowing us to literally control our happiness; we want to believe we have power over our own destinies. We, quite simply, do not have any control, not really, and this is perhaps the hardest lesson to learn.’ She is quick to emphasise, too, that this kind of shocking diagnosis can happen to anyone: ‘The geneticist told us that if we all had our DNA analysed, we’d freak out. We’d be horrified by the many possibilities…’. Later, she writes: ‘Grief, I realized, is watery and trembling and always exists beneath the surface of real life; just a gentle touch and it’s spilling everywhere.’
An element which I found very revealing in The Still Point of the Turning World was the way in which both friends and strangers would react to Ronan’s disease, and to her as his mother. She found those who had been excellent friends turning away from her, and forged strong relationships with support groups for families faced with Tay–Sachs diagnoses.
Lyrical, moving, and tender, The Still Point of the Turning World is a beautiful memorial to a son lost to a brutal disease.