Four years ago, the Scottish novelist and critic Candia McWilliam began to go blind. There was nothing wrong with her eyes, but her eyelids would not open. One of the judges of the 2006 Man Booker Prize, she managed to read each book on the longlist and shortlist between four and eight times by propping up her lids over dry, burning eyes. She was found to be suffering from a rare condition known as blepharospasm, an uncontrollable muscular contraction of the eyelid. This would be devastating for anyone; for a writer whose life revolved around reading and putting together words, it was catastrophic. Its physical manifestations, as she struggled for sight, included grimacing, teeth-grinding and an inability to hold anyone’s gaze. While trying a variety of ineffective treatments, McWilliam felt intuitively that events in her own history had triggered the shutdown. ‘It was as if my deep brain was telling me that I, with my lucky and unlucky life, have seen enough and that I really am for the dark.’ Living apart from her second husband and young son, increasingly reclusive, and a recovering alcoholic, she resolved to hunt down the ‘lost places and people’ of her past, in the hope that this might literally open her eyes.
Dictated to an amanuensis in John Singer Sargent’s former studio in Tite Street (one of several grand locations in the memoir, which McWilliam recreates with an artist’s eye), the first part of What to Look for in Winter is an exploration of McWilliam’s life until the onslaught of