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Joanna Kavenna

Making It Whole

The Faraway Nearby
By Rebecca Solnit (Granta Books 259pp 16.99)

Some of the most interesting contemporary authors are travelling existentialists - wanderers in thought who also physically wander, from Iain Sinclair to W G Sebald to Rebecca Solnit. In these days of publishing collapse and risk aversion, the journey or quest seems to soothe editorial anxieties about reason, plot and conveyable purpose, allowing the author to muse at will, to experiment with form and tempo, to elide fact and fiction. As Sinclair has an editor say at the beginning of Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, 'Lit-fic's a dead duck ... Carry on with the same book but pepper it with real names, actual locations ... We'll squeeze you into the travel sections.'

In Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000), Solnit explains: 'Though the history of walking is, as part of all these fields and everyone's experience, virtually infinite, this history of walking I am writing can only be partial, an idiosyncratic path traced through them by one walker, with much doubling back and looking around.' Her later work, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), advocates remaining open to the 'unforeseen' and 'collaborating with chance'; in Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (2010), she offers 'a small, modest and deeply arbitrary rendering of one citizen's sense of her place in conversation and collaboration with others'. In River of Shadows (2003), the life of Eadweard Muybridge is refracted through Solnit's own preoccupations with the 'embedding' of autobiography in place.

Solnit's latest work, The Faraway Nearby, is a meditation on ageing, frailty and mortality, focused on the final years of her mother's life and the devastating effects of Alzheimer's disease. It is also an account of a journey she makes to Iceland as respite from caring for her mother, and also - after she undergoes surgery herself - for convalescence. Citing Woolf - 'It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole' - Solnit deliberates upon themes of suturing and spinning, with examples ranging from Scheherazade's survival through storytelling to the strands of her mother's memory that are unravelling. Trying to weave together the former lives of her mother, Solnit finds 'my heart lagged behind ... I was still sometimes struggling against the extinct mothers of bygone years, working out the past ... when the present was something else entirely'.

Solnit understands that one of the most disorienting aspects of seeing a parent decline is that you are never quite fixed in the present crisis, you are never wholly the resigned adult. At times you half-forget which stage of life you are meant to be occupying, or that your parents are old - you remember them as the grand and impressive adults you once clung to; you feel like an abandoned child and you have to force yourself to adopt the necessary role. Georges Bataille wrote, 'We are discontinuous beings, individuals who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure'. Solnit perceives, and is bewildered by, this discontinuity, and aims to resist it. She labours over significant objects, drawing them into shifting patterns of symbolism. In the first chapter a harvest of apricots, salvaged from her mother's garden, troubles her in its fetid, half-decayed state. When she returns to the apricots later in the book, she carefully redefines them as a 'catalyst that made the chaos of that era come together as a story of sorts and an invitation to examine the business of making and changing stories and locate the silences in between'.

In Iceland, Solnit finds stories scattered across the ice and lava plains: devout pre-medieval clerics, crazy Vikings in open boats, Frankenstein, Cinderella, debates about the environment. She wanders 'dazed and jetlagged and still convalescent, [contemplating] pale people, a stuffed two-headed lamb in a store window, and the view north across the blue waters of the wide fjord to the sharp mountains still clad in snow'. She relays the saga of a traveller called Peter Freuchen, who spent the winter of 1906-7 alone in a cabin in northeastern Greenland. It was so cold that his breath condensed into ice on the walls and ceiling. However, Freuchen had to keep breathing, and he breathed all winter, and his cabin started to shrink as the breath-ice came towards him: 'It was as though in the stillness of a dark winter alone, he had disappeared inside himself.' Similarly, the tracts of silent ice, the imagined whiteness of a long-gone Arctic winter, only remind Solnit of her prevailing concerns - the blanking out of memory and experience, the silence that awaits us. The retreat falters.

'What's your story?' Solnit writes at one point. 'There are so many ways to tell it.' She tries to confine herself to specifics: her childhood anger with her mother, small details of family strife, frustration, love. She becomes impatient and rejects it all: 'My story in its particulars hardly interests me now.' She weaves frantically and then, like Penelope, unravels what she has made. Concluding, she refuses at first to conclude, dismissing the consolations of a 'neat ending, that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wide sea'. Yet she also spills a surplus cri de Coeur across the bottom of each page - a prose poem about moths drinking the tears of humans, which culminates in a series of questions: 'Those apricots my brother brought me in three big cardboard boxes long ago, were they tears too? And this book, is it tears? Who drinks your tears, who has your wings, who hears your story?' This 'sorrow shared' entreaty to the reader is a neat ending, as if Solnit is acknowledging that for all her formal distaste for resolution, she still longs, at another level, to achieve it.

This is a beautiful and broken book, which Rebecca Solnit knows is flawed even as she writes it, and for all her talk of Woolf she can't work out how to make it whole. How do you convey the demise of your mother in elegant prose, 'weave' it into a coherent story? Should you even try? At times, it feels as if Solnit is writing against her own fears of blankness - refusing to be effaced, refusing to let her mother be effaced, by speaking her name and recasting the significance of her illness over and over again. Then she doubts, even despises, the enterprise, pauses, circles back, resumes again. The result is passionately imperfect, extremely moving, original and humane.


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Joanna Kavenna's latest novel is Come to the Edge. She was listed as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists 2013.


Royal Literary Fund


John Murray