Re­defin­ing mid­dle age for young women

Waterloo Region Record - - Books - Tara Hen­ley is a writer and ra­dio pro­ducer TARA HEN­LEY Spe­cial to the Star

To be a woman in the 21st cen­tury, as the Cana­dian writer Glyn­nis MacNi­col re­cently pointed out, is to ex­ist out­side story. It is to have un­hooked, or been un­hooked from, a nar­ra­tive arc that’s de­fined women’s lives for cen­turies. To find one­self sud­denly tasked with mak­ing it all up from scratch.

As a re­sult, many of us are at sea, rowing fran­ti­cally, not sure which di­rec­tion we’re headed in. En­joy­ing the ocean breeze, sure, but un­der­stand­ably anx­ious about lo­cat­ing a safe har­bour.

The Booker-nom­i­nated Bri­tish au­thor Deb­o­rah Levy is aware of this need — for a bea­con, for some fresh new story to guide us — and she’s be­gun com­pos­ing a counter-nar­ra­tive. The re­sult is the first two vol­umes of her “liv­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,” “Things I Don’t Want to Know,” about her 40s, and “The Cost of Liv­ing,” about her 50s. Both have been pre­vi­ously re­leased in the U.K., and are now out in Canada.

And both are ut­terly spec­tac­u­lar. “Things I Don’t Want to Know” marks the un­rav­el­ling of the sto­ry­book life: love, mar­riage, chil­dren. Levy finds her­self “at war with my lot.” Bereft, per­pet­u­ally weep­ing on es­ca­la­tors at train sta­tions, she re­treats to Ma­jorca, where she rents a freez­ing room, “a refuge from The Fam­ily, “and con­tem­plates the things she’s been avoid­ing think­ing about. One of which is her child­hood in South Africa, and par­tic­u­larly the pe­riod she went mute after her fa­ther, a mem­ber of the African Na­tional Congress, was jailed.

In the process of re­mem­ber­ing — know­ing the pre­vi­ously un­know­able — Levy un­packs how she dis­cov­ered her voice, both as an au­thor and as a woman. The slim tome, an es­say­ish mem­oir on writ­ing and per­son­hood and pa­tri­archy, is poignant, po­etic and deeply po­lit­i­cal.

In her ex­quis­ite fol­lowup, “The Cost of Liv­ing,” Levy tack­les the Her­culean task of dream­ing up a new life. Of be­com­ing the “ma­jor char­ac­ter” in her own sto­ry­line.

Hav­ing left her hus­band of 20 years — “my mar­riage was the boat and I knew that if I swam back to it, I would drown” — she moves her daugh­ters from the fam­ily home to a di­lap­i­dated apart­ment in Lon­don. A friend loans her a chilly gar­den shed to write in, and she spends her days there, fash­ion­ing a new ex­is­tence from words.

When she’s not do­ing that, she’s rid­ing an e-bike to par­ties and meet­ings with film ex­ec­u­tives, fix­ing the plumb­ing in her an­cient flat in her night­dress, and shar­ing road­kill roast chicken din­ners with her teenage daugh­ter and friends.

Not a bad life, all in all. Mis­er­able some­times, of course, but also happy.

And free in a way we are only now start­ing to un­der­stand.

HAMISH HAMIL­TON

Deb­o­rah Levy, au­thor of “The Cost of Liv­ing” and “Things I Don't Want To Know.”

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