The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

After spending a few months with me in London some years ago, a very good friend was about to return to New Zealand and was making some major changes in her life, both personal and in her career. She wasn’t entirely sure what job she wanted to do, but knew it would be in the great outdoors. She loved to travel and she loved nature. I organised a subscription to Wanderlust Travel magazine for her, an inspiration of amazing photography, fabulous ideas for out-of-the-way places to visit and best of all, a link to exciting jobs for those who love to travel across cultures, to be outdoors and meet people.

Milford-Track2

Life on the Milford Track

She completed a diploma, training in the skills required to become an outdoor guide and now works for the Department of Conversation as a guide on the Milford Track, this last season she was based in a lodge, only accessible by helicopter or a few days walk in. She is now living her dream job and it is indeed just like those jobs offered in the pages of that inspiring magazine.

Fast forward a few years and I come across a book called Wanderlust : A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. I was interested in it, though stronger was the feeling that I should send it into that remote wilderness to my friend, it seemed to describe where she had arrived at. So I did. I then forgot about the book until I saw the name Rebecca Solnit come up recently on NetGalley, she had a new book coming out The Faraway Nearby. Here is the book I will read I thought and requested it.

Some weeks later while in London one Saturday, I discovered The London Literature Festival was on and at 3.30pm, I could attend a talk by Rebecca Solnit speaking about her book The Faraway Nearby. Serendipity? I bought a ticket, a hardback copy of her book and went to listen to the author, curious, though I had never read a word of her writing.

FarawayThe book is good, but Rebecca Solnit’s ability to captivate an audience is spectacular. I’m almost sorry to admit it, but the live version was even better than the passive written version, which I really enjoyed, the reading experience enhanced significantly by the additional anecdotes and philosophical meanderings of Solnit in person, as she spoke without pause, the voice of a poet.

The talk was hosted by the literary critic Alex Clark, who suggested that the media coined her book not a memoir, but an anti-memoir. Part anti-memoir and part matremoir, it starts with her recounting the gift of 100 pounds of apricots from her mother, one of the few gifts she ever received from her mother and not disconnected from the fact that her mother is undergoing something of a personality change since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. She lays them out on her bedroom floor, wanting to appreciate their abundance, but instead embraces a soon to be dissected anxiety.

“The fruit on my floor made me start to read fairy tales again. They are full of overwhelming piles and heaps that need to be contended with, the roomful of straw the poor girl in Rumpelstiltskin needs to spin into gold overnight, the thousand pearls scattered in the forest moss the youngest son needs to gather in order to win the princess, the mountain of sand to be moved by teaspoon. The heaps are only a subset of the category of impossible tasks that included quests, such as gathering a feather from the tail of the firebird who loves at the end of the world, riddles, and facing overwhelming adversaries.”

 

Nature essays, how stories create the narrative of our lives, philosophical meanderings, her chapters weave in and out of many subjects, flitting here and there, as she recounts pieces of a year that passed whilst her mother was regressing. She contemplates and then makes an escape to Iceland, mentions friendships and her passion for visual art, the occasional Buddhist legend, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, pain and leprosy likening her narrative to a Russian matryoshka doll, even going so far as to repeat chapter names in reverse, once she arrives at the hard core (the doll that has no doll).

“My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and then tried to get herself back from a daughter.”

ApricotsThere are many anecdotes, insights and great lines throughout the narrative, however Solnit stops short of going too deep into her subject, she observes the apricots and watches how they change, just as she does her mother, but stops short of looking too deep into the past, of really describing their relationship and how they were with each other, it is implied, not described.

I understand this reluctance, for that percentage of women out there who had the kind of relationship with their mother that Solnit did, there will be many nods of the head in recognition of what she says without having to go into detail. For the rest, it may seem superficial or even harsh, but they are the words of a mature 58-year-old women, who admits:

“If I had written about her earlier, the story would have had the aura of the courtroom, for I had been raised on the logic of argument and fact and being right, rather than the leap beyond that might be love.”

At the end of the talk, a few people asked questions and at the last minute, but too late I put up my hand, my question deemed to remain silent. Or so I thought. As everyone left the Purcell Room, a woman called Helena sitting next to me who was also visiting from the country for the day, asked me what I had been going to ask. And so I told her – and had a delightful conversation, just as interesting as it might have been, had I asked the author.

The question I wanted to ask was:

Did she believe that a challenging relationship could be a gift, that it could bring her something that she may not otherwise have developed in herself, had it been otherwise?

I suspect the answer is yes, that these relationships do give people something that can be used proactively, if self-awareness is developed to prevent regressing into the negative aspects or effects of those childhood and adulthood experiences. She may not have been able to fix her mother, but it may not be a coincidence that Rebecca Solnit is outspoken and active in terms of her support of nature, the environment, politics and art.

“I didn’t have much sympathy either; it was not that I refused to give it, but that there was none in my equipment yet, perhaps because I had experienced so little of it.”

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

She Left Me the Gun

The GunNeither the title nor this book cover would normally attract me towards picking up this book, however it was through neither of those avenues that I came to hear about the book. It was a random tweet that included the following:

Any sentence that contains the words “Maya Angelou and Emma Brockes, who both…” works for me.

I was reading Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom at the time and so wondered who Emma Brockes was, intrigued by the reader’s comment implying she’d enjoy curling up with both books. I saw that Brockes had published a memoir about her mother and then read an excellent article in The Guardian, where it turns out Emma Brockes works (in the New York office).

Emma Brockes was born in England, her mother leaving her own country of birth South Africa in her early twenties. After some years living in London, she met her husband and they moved to an English village. She was a mature mother, having her only child later in life and lived a quite routine-lead life with her small family and had a job doing accounts for a jeweller in a neighbouring town.

Brockes recalls her mother mentioning that she’d one day tell her about her life in South Africa before coming to England, however the daughter didn’t press her mother and that moment of revelation never arrived. Apart from a couple of offhand comments hinting at some dark past and a court case, any opportunity to quietly share her past with her daughter in her later years was cut short by her illness and premature death, a time when the days seemed better spent just appreciating each other’s company.

It seemed absurd at this stage to ruin what time we had left with painful and long-avoided subjects.

Whether it was the journalist instinct or some kind of closure in making an effort to understand her mother more fully, Brockes decides to find out what it was that drove her mother to abandon her family and her country and never look back.

Jo'burg High Court

Jo’burg High Court

Knowing there was a court case against her grandfather and using her journalistic knowledge and access to resources, she searches archives, only to discover an earlier judgement, one that preceded his marriage to her grandmother, a murder conviction.

She requests the file to be sent to her and then discovers the second court case, in which mother is named in bringing a charge against her own father. The file is too large, so she makes plans to visit South Africa to do her research and to meet the numerous family members, her mother’s half sisters and brothers, the seven aunts and uncles who live there.

When she was in her mid-twenties, she said, she’d had her father arrested. There had been a highly publicized court case, during which he had defended himself, cross-examining his own children in the witness-box and destroying them one by one. Her stepmother had covered for him. He had been found not guilty.

Emma Brockes

Emma Brockes

This is a book that once started is hard to put down, the way Emma Brockes writes, it is as if you are on the same journey, with the same feeling of curiosity tempered by an instinct not to get too involved.

In fact, for me there was a turning point somewhere in her travels, just when she starts to become part of a local crowd of journalists, when she begins to become part of the weave of family fabric, when it felt like it was time to get out. That while she was there and had a clear purpose and was fulfilling some kind of tribute to her mother, all was well, but that getting any further involved might in some way rub something into her that her mother had spent a lifetime trying to protect her from.

She was right to leave when she did.

And the gun? Well you know whenever a gun is mentioned, a shot must be fired and so it was, yet while the title stretches the truth somewhat, all must be forgiven, since it was suggested to the author by the late Nora Ephron, another fitting tribute.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.