Sunday, February 19, 2012

What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness

Posted by Kurt

Candia McWilliam is a supernaturally gifted writer, able to craft prose into unforgettable images and potent insights.  Her latest book contains breathtaking observations and crippling emotional honesty.  What a shame, then, that so much of it is a waste of her talent that makes the memoir as a whole such a chore to finish.

Since I received my copy of this book as part of the Amazon Vine program, I began reading the first page with a feeling of obligation to finish the last before I could write a review.  For the first hundred pages or so, I worried that I would never finish because I kept grabbing a pen to underscore the most striking lines (for example, describing, “the hours between two and four in the morning, the time when suicide suggests itself and addicts give in,” and taking an anecdote about enjoying a pomegranate with her mother and infusing that moment with mythological weight by tying in the Persephone myth and being unsurprised to learn that “the seeds were measures of time spent with or without a mother.”).  When McWilliam is willing to put forth the impossible effort to reflect on herself, both her present struggle with functional blindness (the author develops a condition called blepharospasm, in which her eyes work just fine but her brain refuses to open her eyelids) and her early days enjoying a brief childhood and falling in love with her native Scotland, she is absolutely exceptional.  
Unfortunately, she only makes these achievements in the first hundred-odd pages and in the last hundred and fifty or so, making for half of a near-perfect book.  The bulk of the middle is an exercise in McWilliam neglecting her gifts in a shameless list of dropped names and brief tributes that reads like the Acknowledgements section in the liner notes of an album by a peculiarly grateful musician. (to paraphrase: “Then at school, I met So-and-So, the grandson of So-and-So, who has done more for me in my blindness than I can express.  Then I met So-and-So, who was so beautiful and who has been such a generous lifelong friend.  Then I got married and was surprised to find that Lady Diana later chose the same dressmaker.  Then we went on a honeymoon and met So-and-So...”)  If I had not felt obligated to finish reading for this review, I certainly would have capitulated around page 300 and moved on to anything else.  I suspect that many readers will do the same, which is a tragedy.. made more tragic because I don’t place much blame on these hypothetical readers.
McWilliam herself spends some time in this memoir to explore her theory of what makes a proper memoir, anticipating criticisms about a lack of a clear character arc or a strong theme.  Her book is inspired by approaching blindness and its implications for her as a novelist (in my first paragraph, I intentionally chose vision-based language to echo her conclusions about how vital a sense of sight is for verbal communication), but it also serves as a passionate love letter to the joys of reading and writing, and as a hesitant hand offered to fellow addicts seeking recovery, and as a woman mourning her own mother while keenly aware of her own failings as a mother and wife.  The resulting lack of focus can be infuriating, even when I temper my reaction with the knowledge that she does what she does on purpose, and even though I love so many of her tangents.  This is a woman unafraid of her literary background and confident in her insistence on tantalizing silences (there is a whole novel lurking behind a line like, “I had just returned from India, where I had gone to convince a friend that it was home that he was pining for and not me...”), and I wish she had been able to make impossible choices to excise enormous cancerous chapters that drain the vitality from the rest of the memoir (and the reader).  Although a quick search on reveals that her novels are not readily available in the United States, I can say with confidence that McWilliam is an inspiring talent who is capable of so much better than this.  I loved so much of this memoir, but everything else was so terrible that I cannot in good conscience recommend it to any but the most devoted fans of Candia McWilliam or the Scotland she loves so well.  I feel such a sense of loss writing a two-star review for what should have been a five-star memoir.  

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