Sunday, 12 August 2007

The year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

After 40 years of marriage and work along side the writer, John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion became a widow over dinner. Their daughter, whom they'd just come from visiting, lay in a coma in the hospital.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion struggles to comprehend what has happened to her. The dulled rhythms of the writing (if the world "dull" can ever be used in connection with Didion's prose) manage to express the flatness of her existence. The repetitive thoughts and phrases echo a mind before it is able to move on.

If the book lacks spirituality, as some have said, it is because, for Didion, there was nothing spiritual in the loss of her husband and the illness of her daughter. It was a black hole of devastation and the grinding effort that living became.

Didion turns to books to make sense of her condition. She searches for words that will lend comfort and fill the hole in her being; to make the hurt go away; to make it better. Nothing helps, except, perhaps, Emily Post, the mistress of etiquette from another generation. In the rituals of proper behaviour and concrete instructions for caring for the bereaved, Didion finds tradition something to lean on. There was always a reason for good manners, correct behaviour, the formalities of life and death.

And, in the end, there is hope. Not because there is redemption in suffering, but because she survived.

We all survive.

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