Life’s heavy bur­dens, sparsely nar­rated

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Kate Kell­away

The Cost of Liv­ing by Deb­o­rah Levy Pen­guin, 208pp

WH Au­den once said that writ­ing about your life was “us­ing up cap­i­tal”, but this is what makes mem­oir such a gen­er­ous form. And Deb­o­rah Levy is a most gen­er­ous writer. What is won­der­ful about this short, sensual, em­bat­tled mem­oir is that it is not only about the painful land­marks in her life – the end of a mar­riage, the death of a mother – it is about what it is to be alive.

I can’t think of any writer aside from Vir­ginia Woolf (or, per­haps, He­len Simp­son) who writes bet­ter about the lim­i­nal, the do­mes­tic, the non-event, and what it is to be a woman. I al­ways feel, read­ing Levy (this is her sec­ond mem­oir), that she is a writer with noth­ing much – and with ev­ery­thing – to say.

Af­ter her mar­riage breaks down – at a time when her ca­reer is as­cend­ing (she has been short­listed for the Booker prize) – Levy and her two young daugh­ters move into a north Lon­don block of flats that she de­scribes, in its stricken de­fi­ciency, with panache. She makes of the flat a story, with its big skies and its ster­ile cor­ri­dor. She de­scribes the bees that are her un­ex­pected flat­mates, her pros­per­ing strawberry plants, and the ex­otic or­anges with car­damom that she and her daugh­ters eat for break­fast. She writes en­ter­tain­ingly about her at­tempt, en­cour­aged by a friend, at “liv­ing with colour” – her yel­low bed­room a gar­ishly false move.

Levy’s style is shorn; emo­tional bur­dens are car­ried with­out sur­plus words. She de­scribes rent­ing the poet and play­wright Adrian Mitchell’s shed from his wi­dow, to write in, and it be­comes, like the flat, a char­ac­ter: a shed of one’s own. The af­fec­tion­ate por­trait of eightysome­thing Celia Mitchell her­self is de­light­ful. She won­ders why Levy both­ers to wear pearls to work in a dirty shed, and in­tro­duces her to friends as “She Who Lurks in the Gar­den”.

This is a lit­tle book about a big sub­ject. It is about how to “find a new way of liv­ing”. Rage is brew­ing just be­neath its sur­face. But it’s com­pli­cated, not least be­cause Levy has a gift for home­mak­ing. She writes about it as a process of “em­pa­thy” (she uses the word more than once), and re­flects that it is “an act of im­mense gen­eros­ity” in women to “be the ar­chi­tect of ev­ery­one else’s well­be­ing”.

How, then, in mid­dle age, does a woman who pos­si­bly never felt at home in her own home leave? How does she at­tain the same free­dom as a man? How does a writer stay a mother? Levy notes the tell­tale way in which wives of­ten get talked about by their hus­bands as “my wife” – and are not named.

I read this book with in­de­cent speed and greed, but it de­serves to be read at a pace closer to lived time. I par­tic­u­larly love Levy’s amused cu­rios­ity about strangers. I was en­ter­tained by the saga of the el­derly neigh­bour who did not like her park­ing her elec­tric bi­cy­cle in front of their flats. This ap­par­ently in­signif­i­cant con­flict was an in­sight into one woman un­able to watch an­other liv­ing a fuller life (my judg­ment – Levy shows but does not judge).

I was stirred by the por­trait of her mother, and the de­scrip­tion of buy­ing ice lol­lies from a Turk­ish newsagent’s dur­ing her mother’s last days in hos­pi­tal, when these were all she could eat. One dis­as­trous day the newsagent’s had only bub­blegum flavour left. Levy was dis­traught – but the story of the predica­ment made her mother smile. Levy was too dev­as­tated to ex­plain in the shop why, in mid­win­ter, she was buy­ing ice lol­lies ev­ery day – un­til af­ter her mother’s death. And then the newsagents were “so up­set it was their turn not to speak”. This made me cry, al­though I was not sur­prised by their re­ac­tion: Levy knows how to share her story.

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