Samantha Ellis

All By Myself

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

By Olivia Laing

Canongate 315pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

When Olivia Laing found herself in New York in her mid-thirties with a broken heart, she had the sensation of being, like the redhead trapped behind the diner window in Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, ‘walled up in glass … I could see out all too clearly but lacked the ability to free myself or to make the kind of contact I desired’. Hopper is just one of the lonely artists she examines in this ruminative and mesmerising book.

In her first book, To the River, Laing walked the River Ouse in the wake of a break-up, while in her second, The Trip to Echo Spring, she followed six writers across America to tease out their relationships with alcohol. Here, she roams New York, moving restlessly from sublet to sublet, mainlining Twitter, trawling Craigslist for dates. She pictures loneliness as a city, crammed with people who are unable to connect. This ‘state of lack’ is painful and shaming, but she remembers that Virginia Woolf wondered if being ‘driven by loneliness from the habitable world’ might take her to ‘the singing of the real world’, and it gives her hope.

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University of Chicago Press

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