This month’s discussion was held by a skeleton crew of two: me and the one other person who didn’t have some farfetched excuse not to join. Variously these excuses included: the book not being available from the library and (the somewhat more extreme) moving to another country or preparing for the arrival of a baby. However it turned out to be fortunate that there were only two of us involved, as even though it was during a work lunch break the conversation ended up being more emotional and personal than previous ones. This was perhaps an inevitable response to the subject matter, so we benefited from a more straightforward back and forth, rather than navigating a group discussion.
A Year of Magical Thinking is a nonfiction offering published in 2005 by celebrated essayist and author, Joan Didion. The book loosely tracks the year following the sudden death of her husband of forty years and collaborator, John Gregory Dunne (screenwriter, novelist and literary critic), in December 2003. In the brutal way that life sometimes unfolds, the same year sees their daughter, Quintana, suffer severe bouts of illness. Didion turns her sharp reflection skills and idiosyncratic writing style on herself, and the result is a depiction of worry and bereavement in a jarring blur of memories, denial and bewilderment. It feels intensely recognisable, even for people who haven’t experienced the loss of a partner after forty years of marriage, because it describes in real terms the experience of the one thing we all fear: the sudden loss of someone we love. This is especially potent in a society like ours, which is well versed in pretending death doesn’t exist.
Though it’s not a long read at only 217 pages, I found I was more inclined to pick it up when feeling emotionally robust, and even then only in brief bursts. We both admitted at the start of the conversation that we had cried more than once while reading it, but agreed that there was something more complex about the emotions it evokes than absolute sadness. The references to their life together add a warmth palpable for the reader, even if Didion herself is unable to feel yet, so soon after John’s passing.
Didion offers up snippets of their life together in random flashbacks, usually at the end of a chain of thought prompted by the smallest observation. In these it’s clear that they were incredibly fortunate in terms of their marriage and life together. I wondered when, if ever, there comes a time in the grieving process at which it’s possible to truly recognise that. Perhaps years later; perhaps never if the hole feels too big.
If, like me, you’ve not read any of Didion’s work before, this is a strange jumping off point, but one we both highly recommend — with tissues handy. It feels human and true to the disorientating effects of death (we can’t ignore it one hundred percent of the time!). It had the added outcome of making us both take a moment to be appreciative of our lives and the people in it, which seems to me to be one of the best things you can feel as you close a book, however many tears it takes to get there!