“Bleaker House” by Nell Stevens (2017)

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“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.”

I seem to have an unfortunate attraction to books about loneliness. They have in the past caused my own feelings to become exacerbated, but occasionally they do the opposite and make me feel less alone. Bleaker House is definitely one that falls into the latter category.

This book – which I first picked up thinking it was fiction – follows Nell Stevens to the Falkland Islands in her quest to become a writer. Convinced that if she spends six weeks on the remote Bleaker Island (human population: two), she will have enough time and freedom from distractions to pen the novel she’s been meaning to write forever and finally become a writer. The twenty-something sets off, packing up rations for the duration and is convinced that this is the answer to her problems.

However, once there, she realises just how remote the islands are. With nothing but some penguins, sea lions and a potato for company, she begins writing. But more than that. She begins to learn who she is when no one is around. She analyses her past and explores her mistakes. And, most importantly, she learns that plans don’t always work out the way you expect them to.

The narrative is haphazard, but in the way that one’s thoughts do skitter about with snooker balls in a hurricane when you’ve no distractions or company, and it adds to the mania that pervades the premise of Nell’s situation. Chapters alternate between talking about her experiences on the Falkland Islands (particularly Bleaker, but also visiting briefly the capital Stanley), her times back in London and Boston, and her own fiction, either excerpts from the novel-in-progress or previous short stories. I saw one reviewer complain that the book seemed only to serve as a vehicle for Nell to publish stories that had otherwise been rejected, but I disagree. The stories are great, and a vital part of the narrative. After all, it would be almost cheating to send a writer all the way out to the edge of civilisation and then not see their work.

Nell is a comforting, compelling narrator who has by all accounts lived an interesting life. Before her journey, she travelled and tried to be a good person, taking up positions teaching in war-torn nations or helping – as best she was able – a boyfriend with depression. She does, however, have a knack of always being right in the middle of some of the most dramatic moments in the last ten years, including the Boston Marathon bombing, the London riots of 2011, and the shelling of Beirut by Israeli forces. It’s frankly a wonder she’s as balanced as she seems – and for a writer that’s not bad going, as none of us are that balanced – or perhaps it was all the horror she got caught up in that caused her to vanish to the remote wilderness.

As I said at the top, some books about loneliness make me feel lonely. This one did not. It was curiously comforting, honest and beautiful. Frank Turner sings in his song “Be More Kind”, “When you go out searching don’t decide what you will find” and that feels apt here. No matter how excellent your plans seem, there is never a guarantee that they’ll come to fruition. Or, at least, maybe not in the way you expect.

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“Bird By Bird” by Anne Lamott (1994)

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Albatross, bittern, crow, etc

Albatross, bittern, crow, etc

“I grew up around a father and a mother who read every chance they got, who took us to the library every Thursday night to load up on books for the coming week.”

Some of you may or may not know that I am not only a voracious reader and reviewer of books on a tawdry little WordPress blog, but I am also a writer under my own steam. I’ve got a degree in it and everything, so it must be true. However, just lately, I have been entirely drained. The idea of writing has dragged me down and the words aren’t coming. I’m not the sort of writer who will force himself to sit before the keyboard and waste an hour just tapping away at a stream of conciousness about how much I loathe myself – not my style.

Since I finished my first novel last year (drafts and edits in progress), I have not really found myself diving into anything new. Lamott may well have changed all of that because Bird by Bird is an incredibly persuasive book.

The title comes from this story that Lamott shares:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”

The book is a combination of memoir and how-to guide, mostly giving the reader an insight into the world of writing. It doesn’t focus on the actual aspects of getting published (although they are glossed over towards the end) but instead gives you other reasons to write, and explains how to actually get the words down. Lamott is clearly very gifted and this book is beautiful, moving, hilarious and most certainly inspiring. She makes wonderful observations about character, plot, dialogue and writer’s block. She talks about the frame of mind required to write, about how one should listen to their work and see where it takes them.

And somewhere along the line, it stops being advice about writing, and starts being advice about life. The chapter on perfectionism is particularly great for that.

Anyone who is a writer, or wants to be a writer, could benefit from giving this book a once over. Some of the advice you’ve heard a million times before but some of it is brand new, and while everyone has their own style of working, all writers can glean something out of this, if only some of the great anecdotes that get used. There’s also a great poem by Phillip Lapote in it – it might be worth it just for that.

All I know is, I am inspired to write again. Fingers crossed I can produce something worthwhile!