It has been a particularly long silence since my last post in July. JULY! It is hard even to think back to then – to warm sunshine and long evenings, and all the leaves being green.
‘The pram in the hall’ has long been to blame for women finding it so hard to find time to write. This has to be less of an excuse for me, now the pram is very much a pushchair and Vita is two (unbelievably) and we have a considerable amount of childcare. I wasn’t, however, prepared to find being pregnant again such a struggle. Due to some wonderful combination of luck, naivete, and spending a heavenly couple of months in Italy when Vita was ripening in my tummy, being pregnant first time round was pretty straightforward. Yes, there were a few aches and grumbles and moments of exhaustion, but there was always the chance to rest, and life seemed to go on pretty much as normal.
Not so this time round.
I suppose, once you come to think about it, it makes sense. Leaving aside the exhaustion of looking after a two-year-old (and childcare, wonderful though it is, doesn’t cover all the extra things like laundry and cleaning and nightmares and illnesses and sicking things up and throwing breakfast all over the room and refusing to nap and ripping off nappies …), there’s also the fact that I’m a couple of years older, and those couple of years have been relatively sleepless and physically draining. But I thought it would be like last time. So it has been shocking to watch my life, which had found a very happy new balance, turn, well if not quite upside down, then certainly sideways.
Have any of you read Black Rainbow by Rachel Kelly? It’s her memoir of suffering from post-natal depression, which she experienced soon after her second son was born. Rachel Kelly was a high-powered journalist at The Times, but soon spiralled into the depths of a terrible, utterly debilitating depression from which she was, somewhat miraculously, rescued by reading poetry.
Reading her book not only made me wish I had more patience and skill with poetry, but also made me think how dangerous it can be to try to do too much. Women today are lucky to be able to have careers and children. We all know that, for sure. We are less lucky, however, in that trying to do both – and trying to do them both well – can all-too-easily push us towards a nervous breakdown.
For me, what was already a bit of a juggle, with pregnancy thrown in too, became impossible. Things began to spiral, but luckily before the bad moments loomed too large, the husband succeeded in bossing me about into a much better place. This has meant that I’ve had to let some things slide. Social engagements have all been cut. Cooking has been swapped for Deliveroo. Writing the novel has been temporarily shelved. Work in the bookshop ended rather earlier this time round. And, alas, this blog has also been put to one side. Please forgive me?
Thank god, I have still been managing to read and to write. I hope you might have seen some of my bits of journalism? I always try to update the sections on the Emilybooks homepage with links, but in case you missed them, here are a few of the pieces of which I’m most proud. I would, of course, love to know your thoughts on any of them.
THIS piece in the Spectator about a mobile library for homeless people. I am especially interested in using books as a way in to challenging situations – if we can talk to one another about what we’re reading, then we can soon talk about so much more. I suppose I’d like to think of this piece as the third in a ‘series’ of sorts, coming after this piece for the Guardian about reading in prisons, and this for the Spectator about reading in the Calais migrant camp. I hope there will be more pieces to come.
THIS interview for lovely website Five Books with author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen about contemporary Israeli fiction. She was brilliant at talking about how novels were so tied to politics, while remaining remarkably positive and inspiring. I really enjoyed, by the way, her novel Waking Lions.
While I’ve not been reviewing on here so much, I have been reviewing elsewhere, which has been wonderful. I was thrilled that both these books I reviewed for the Spectator went on to make the Man Booker shortlist – Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and Do Not Say we Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. I’ve also been doing some paperback reviews for the Guardian Review. I should say that this is my absolutely favourite bit of newspaper, and so to be amongst its rustling pages has brought me an amount of pleasure wildly disproportionate to the modest length of my reviews. There should be a couple more coming out in the coming weeks, but here is my review of the especially brilliant novel Last Things by Jenny Offill. It’s also been really fun reviewing for Country Life magazine. Again, there are some more in the pipeline, but here is my review for them of the new Elizabeth Jane Howard biography by Artemis Cooper.
Meanwhile, Emily’s Walking Book Club has been thriving. Our last meeting of 2016 was last Sunday, when we discussed Hilary Mantel’s weird and really wonderful memoir Giving up the Ghost. We talked a great deal about ghosts, and childhood, and memories, and illness. We all loved Hilary Mantel’s amazing prose style – how clever she is to keep us so gripped, while inspiring daydreams and recollections of our own childhoods too. We were still in full flow as we came to the end of the walk, and I almost wished we could have set off for another loop of the Heath (though I think that might also have nudged the baby out…). It’s a knotty book that doesn’t offer a neat resolution or easy distillation of truth. You don’t get that ‘aha’ moment, where everything neatly slots into place. As Mantel writes about her blotchy school essays, held together with bits of her mother’s embroidery silk:
Truth isn’t pretty, I thought, and the pursuit of it doesn’t make pretty people. Truth isn’t elegant; that’s just mathematicians’ sentimentality. Truth is squalid and full of blots, and you can only find it in the accumulation of dusty and broken facts, in the cellars and sewers of the human mind.
It’s a book full of truths, and therefore a messy one that inspired a great deal of discussion.
Other recent meetings have been to discuss Barbara Pym’s poignant but witty novel about getting old, Quartet in Autumn, and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which everyone seemed to love revisiting just as much as I did. Getting out into the fresh air – especially when feeling so huge and cumbersome, being surrounded by friendly faces, and discussing such excellent books has been a real lifeline. I shall miss it over the coming months, while I have a break for the new baby, and am looking forward to taking it up again in the new year. There will definitely be a meeting in March, and perhaps even February – we shall just have to see how the new balance works out, once the baby arrives.
And I think the same ought be said for Emilybooks. While I would love to imagine finding the time to write about the many books I hope to read while feeding the new baby, who knows how it will all work out? It’s more likely that the baby will be latched to one breast while I am trying to control Vita, who’ll be marauding around the living room throwing her toys at us, or else my eyes will be too glazed from sleeplessness to be able to focus on print. I remain optimistic, but I must ask you to remain patient, and forgiving, while I navigate through such an uncertain, but ultimately very exciting, time.