An amazing debut by Nell Stevens an MFA student who decides to adventure to the Falklands to write. The subtitle “Chasing my novel to the end of the world” describes her desperate attempt to find her novel. The true account is interspersed with stories and scenes from her novel that she almost resolves.
From arrival at the farm, it’s clear that the unreality of the experience is bothering her “ I disarrange the objects, as though I tossed them down without much thought. Still, somehow, the table feels like a set, the sunroom like a stage, and the Island beyond like a gaping, vacant auditorium.” The simile holds throughout this book as we slip between memoir and fiction the author is becoming the subject as her she “learns to be alone.”
Whilst Stevens is grappling with her subject she is stalking around the island trying to capture her characters. She becomes obsessive about the links between Bleak House and her story “I start to see the novel as a meaningful guide to my experience in the Falklands and my own work of writing: I make connections, see patterns…” She describes the dissension into obsession in psychological terms as the “Magical Thinking” like accepting your horoscope as uniquely personal. Strangely one of the other pieces of media she has on the island is the film Eat, Pray, Love. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert encourages us to look for synchronicities. As I have described in my review of her book, she believes ideas flit away if we don’t grab them. Perhaps like the BU hoodie that floats from her washing line, Nell is left with the idea of the aloneness as her subject, everything else she thought drifting away.
I think this is a brilliant book for writers. As well as the tips from her renowned MFA professor, she shares insights into her writing process throughout. Her experience sounds like a lot of creative’s dream – retreating from the world to solely concentrate on working. But her reality is both a cautionary tale and a reflection of what we need to create. In writing it is not just writing a “set number of words”or working completely alone. Her relationship with her work is more complex than that.
In addition to the ongoing battle with Dickens, she is arguing too with Hemingway and his experience of starvation in Paris. Put simply she has a weight limit on her luggage and does not have enough to eat. I found this frustrating to read, it seemed like the naivety she admits to at the end takes her a while to realise and at times you feel her youth. Though she has clearly lived a busy and accomplished life, she makes me feel protective when she is battling with this notion of hunger as a helpmate to her art. As you may expect of this introspective novel, there are times she becomes self-involved, like covering her mirror so she doesn’t see how bushy her eyebrows become. In the end though, we are interested in how she has developed this work more than her actual experience: though there are wonderful moments like when she helps herd cows and I laughed audibly when the caracara is pursuing her.
I would highly recommend this book for wannabe writers like me. These are some hard lessons she learns and there is a lot we can take away from them.