What happens to your sense of self when your partner dies? An engaging memoir of loss
Bereavement is a kind of madness, a widowed friend said to me when my first husband died. For at least a year, she went on, on noaccount remarry, move house or buy a dog, or, she might have added, write abook. The bereavement memoir has become a 21st-century genre in which Joan Didions The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oatess A Widows Story are the classics. Anyone in the habit of writing will find at moments of crisis that, as Lisa Appignanesi puts it in the prelude to her own account of widowhood, the writer steps in. Quite where the reader comes in is not so clear. These are not, for the most part, self-help manuals, but in a society that has lost touch with many traditional rituals of death and mourning, people seem to find them useful, either for themselves or for bereaved friends. Having been widowed twice in the last six years, I have become a reluctant connoisseur of the form.
The Year of Magical Thinking is the one I came to dislike most. In its highly polished prose, the only face I saw reflected was Didions. I was sorry for her loss, but, I reasoned, as I trudged round to donate yetanother copy to the increasingly startled looking woman in the charity shop, I had my own difficulties. Didion and I were in the same boat, but she was steering it her way, which wasnt mine. The bereavement memoir may not be meant only for the bereaved, but that is often where it ends up and it is impossible from that position not to take it as, to some extent, a critique of your own situation. Everyday Madness is a much less well organised book than Magical Thinking. It rambles in places, has a ragged, stop-start quality, often feeling like a conversation, at times an argument, with the reader, and is all the more engaging for it.
Appignanesis husband, the academic historian and philosopher of science, John Forrester, died in 2015. Although he had been ill for some time, the end came quickly, perhaps the very end always does. They had been together for 32 years, not all plain sailing. She writes about the emotional mess: his infatuation with another woman, which was painful at the time but firmly in the past until, going through his desk to find his will, she discovers a collection of photographs. There is also the actual mess. His last words to her, as she tried to pick up his sopping, soiled pyjamas from the bathroom floor, were: Thats all youre good for. Cleaning shit. She knows he was too ill to be responsible, that it is not the epitaph on their marriage, but of course she cant get it out of her head.
The pathetic ironies of loss: the half-finished bottle of complimentary shampoo from a hotel still on thebathroom shelf. I have shoes that lasted longer than my second marriage. So time shifts about. The mourner drifts like a figure in a painting by Chagall, sometimes flying sometimes floating. Days speed up, slow down and gradually, like snow drifts, build up into weeks. Appignanesi sensibly takes good advice wherever she can find it from the living, the dead and the fictional. Montaigne, Hamlet, Leonard Cohen. The epigraph I found most affecting Im not lost for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost is from Winnie-the-Pooh.
After the intensely personal first section of the book, Grieving, the perspective widens in the central chapters into Losing and here the picture begins to blur. Appignanesi takes on not only her own earlier life but also politics, populism, social media and the contemporary climate of generalised anger. Few of her readers will disagree with what she says about Twitter or Trump, orthe dangers of too much time online, which risks creating a voided life in which shaming scapegoating and hating dominate. But most of it has been said before many times. Welose sight of Appignanesi herself, who becomes at this point curiously uncritical, allowing Freud to cast a baleful shadow and some very questionable statements to go unquestioned. The father-daughter bond is strong. Mothers are far more difficult for their daughters to come to inner terms with. The reader who finds no parallel to these dicta in her own experience can only silently demur.
In an age addicted to endless surveys, many of dubious value, she cites what must surely beone of the silliest, from the early 1960s: Women take a long time to get over the death of a husband. From the baseline of the blindingly obvious, it concluded that less than half are themselves again at the end of the first year. At first I read that to mean that after ayear they were each less than half themselves, which seems plausible. Theactual meaning raises questions about the nature of self and the combination of memory and experience that is identity. The self changes from day to day ineven the most tranquil periods of a life. After shattering loss it is transformed. There is no getting over: only, if youre lucky, getting through.
In the last part, Loving, Appignanesi makes a welcome reappearance in her own voice, to consider her situation with new eyes. Her two-year-old grandson, Manny, a natural object for his bereaved Nanas devotion, is also the source of an unexpected insight. Manny was born in a sense bereaved he had atwin who died in the womb. Now his mother is expecting another baby. When the baby appears it is, for Manny, adevastating loss. His place in the world has gone. He is unable to concentrate, uninterested in food and irrationally angry, a mirror of his grandmothers state, the very picture of bereavement. Shegets out of bed one night to find him weeping: Ithought youd gone everyones gone. Readers who, like TS Eliots Magi, have seen birth and death, but had thought they were different, are left with the more complicated truth that Appignanesi brings home at the end of her unsteady journey from grief tolove.
Everyday Madness: On Grief, Anger, Loss and Love is published by Fourth Estate. To order a copy for 12.74 (RRP 14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.