Karanja was a guest writer on the blog last week and gracious enough to send in an extra piece (review) to fill in for me today, being book review day. He reviews the autobiography of Joan Didion. Thanks for doing this Karanja. You can read his beautiful post from last week here.

AUTHOR: Joan Didion (American)

GENRE: Autobiography


NUMBER OF PAGES; Paper Back (Reviewer’s copy) 227 pages

RATING: 3.5 Stars

John was talking, then he wasn’t’.

This is Joan Didion’s memory of when she first realized that something was not right a few moments after massive coronary arrest seized her husband John’s at the table where they had sat to have dinner on 30th December 2003. A famous and wealthy couple, John Gregory Dunne like Didion was a renowned writer and the two were a common fixture in Hollywood’s social circles. In this numbing memoir of the year following her husband’s death, Didion opens with the revelation that it is exactly the ordinariness of everything that precedes a tragedy like hers which makes it seem even more fantastical than it should. Unbelievable. A joke. Reversible.

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.’

One would imagine the death of Didion’s partner of 40 years when her only child and daughter is lying in an induced coma after suffering septic shock would lead to a tender story of acceptance, grieving, depression and brutal aching. But what happens is that Didion’s loss plunges her into a tempered psychosis where she looks into events leading up to that dreadful day, seeking to alter something in their routines which may lead to his ‘magical’ return.

Didion’s usual stylism is starkly absent in her prose and emotion removed from her tone to be replaced with raw honesty, a near banal attention to the detail of her memories and astonishing control in her intellectualist approach to addressing her loss. Even when the emergency response team is attending to John on the floor where he collapsed, she has the composure to think they might have to go to hospital and retrieves his medical history charts and her purse.

At the hospital a social worker notices her calm demeanour and refers to her as a ‘cool customer’. Didion puts off the funeral of her husband for about three months until her daughter Quintana comes out of her coma. In the weeks following John’s death, the widow exhibits a refusal to let her late husband go. She is obsessed with medical details of his condition, requesting an autopsy in the hope that the problem was simple enough to reverse. She refuses to get rid of his shoes as he would need them when (not if) he returned, ignores any tributes or obituaries as they confirm other people’s acceptance of his death. Once, there’s a line in an unpublished manuscript John had written she considers altering slightly but decides against it as she sees it a betrayal. As if he were there to berate her.

Quintana relapses and is hospitalised again. Between fighting the loss of her husband and the fear for her child’s life, Didion takes us down a path of scattered memories, many happy, some sad, all a reminder of how much the tragedy of John’s death has shaken up her life. Their’s is a family which death visits often and in the most macabre of ways, a murder, a plane crash, cancer. But yet it is the quiet and unexpected disruption of daily routine with John which brings the most upheaval in her life.

A realisation brings the author to an awakening which lends to the closing of the story. She is aware that the year is drawing to a close. 1 whole year which John has not been a part of and going into the new one, she can no longer keep time in reference to events which had occurred in their time together as she had during the year of magical thinking.

This volume is littered in more places than I care for with academic texts on the psychology of grief as well as blatant name dropping. The latter I suppose can be pardoned considering the life Joan has led is one of celebrity for most of her years but the former was plain exhausting and I have to admit skipping a few excerpts from this or that research paper.

While I think this book should be a staple for anyone who has known the grief of human loss recent or not, I must warn that it does not teach to cope. It’s not a self-help book. It bears no answers to your questions. It is merely a candid chronicle of one valiant woman’s journey to a place where she reclaims her life after an awful experience threw it off track. It is warming, enlightening and even comforting but it is not a magical healing potion and thankfully does not purport to be.

The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place’, she says towards the end.

Nearing conclusion she declares,
‘I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead,
Let them go, keep them dead.
Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name on the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water. 
Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water’.

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