Monday, April 3, 2017

Bleaker House

Bleaker House by Nell Stevens (2017)

When choosing where to go for her writing fellowship, Nell Stevens took the opposite tack as many of her peers. Rather than going to a European or Asian city bustling with activity, she picked a remote island in the Falklands where she would be the only inhabitant for most of the time she was there. Her goal was to focus on her novel with no distractions. Of course, what we got was this memoir about her experience so obviously the result of her time on Bleaker Island wasn't what she was aiming for.

Chapters about her time on the island alternate with experiences from her past and bits of her writing. Snippets of the novel she's working on were to be expected (and I might have been disappointed without a taste of the work around which her whole trip centered) but she also included some short stories, presumably also written while she was there though she doesn't really talk about working on projects other than her novel. I got the feeling these were included because she couldn't publish them elsewhere, or because she needed filler; after all, there wasn't much to write about on this lonely island. Still, I didn't dislike the stories (or novel snippets) and if she does eventually publish a fiction book I may well read it. I like her style.

Her trip was planned carefully and mostly went smoothly, except that she really screwed up with food. She had to carry all her food to the island with her and because of weight restrictions on the tiny plane, she had to measure and weigh everything ahead of time. After arriving in the Falklands she learns she could have arranged for supplies to be delivered to her while she was there, but this would have to have been set up far in advance. I can absolutely understand not having this bit of information ahead of time; if nobody told her, it probably wouldn't occur to her to ask. What I can't understand is why she thought it was adequate to allot herself just over 1000 calories per day. A simple Google search or, I don't know, asking a friend, could have easily disabused her of the idea that it was enough calories for anything but temporary survival. So she was hungry a lot, and as we know from learning about the importance of school lunch programs, it's very difficult to concentrate when you're hungry.

This is not the first trip Stevens has taken in service to her writing. She's a bit apologetic about it, but to me it seems like having a lot of experiences in different places is a good way to learn things about the world you wouldn't otherwise know, and would expand the breadth of writing fodder. At the same time, it's completely obvious from the outset that her novel became a memoir so when she writes about her epiphany - that what she really needs to be writing is not a novel but a memoir about herself - it is both a little too meta (writing a book about writing the book) but also, yeah, we know you ended up writing a memoir. There's no need to point it out as though it's a shocking plot twist. I am also reminded of the passage in her piece of fiction "Character Study" in which a student consider's her teacher's autobiographical book of poetry: "Her marriage was not as interesting as she seemed to think it was. Why did she imagine her life merited so much scrutiny, so much attention? It was an ordinary life." It's as though Stevens knows she doesn't quite have enough for a real memoir (hence all the pieces of fiction woven in) but she needed something to show for her time there, if not the novel she set out to write.

Yet, I enjoyed the book most of the time I was reading it. Sure it fell a bit flat at the end, and there weren't nearly as many penguins as I had hoped for based on the cover art, but I'm glad I read it. Although there wasn't much to talk about regarding her experiences on the island, I still quite enjoyed the parts about her trip and her stay there. I also think someone interested in the writing process might benefit from some of her insights regarding success and failure and the way she integrated her life experiences into fiction.

I'm also - as always - interested in other books in which people travel to cold, remote settings so if you have any suggestions please let me know in the comments!


Lindsay said...

Interesting review! I've been looking forward to this book for months, so I'm a bit bummed you didn't LOVE it. I was sold the instant I saw the cover, and I'm also a sucker for books set in cold places. I've got it checked out from the library so I'll be reading it soon. Good to know I should maybe temper my expectations a bit.

I'm sure you're familiar with most of the same cold-climes books I am, but you might not have heard of "The Alaskan Laundry" by Brendan Jones, about a girl with a troubled past who moves to Alaska to work in the Bering Sea fisheries and crab boats. I read it last spring and it was decent.

3goodrats said...

I've not heard of that one, though "decent" is not a ringing endorsement either.