Rachel Cooke’s graphic novel of the month
Writing about grief is hard and this account of bereavement doesn’t get close enough to the heart, writes Rachel Cooke
Everyday Madness Lisa Appignanesi
4th Estate, £16.99, pp272
In 2015, the writer Lisa Appignanesi lost her partner of more than 30 years; he had been suffering from cancer, and in November of that year, he died. Like all deaths of this kind, his was both expected and unexpected, and for his widow it brought all the usual torments of bereavement: the “everyday madness” of her title. She was sad, and she was angry; she imagined strange things; sometimes, she felt she wanted to die herself. The word bereavement is linked etymologically to the old Germanic “reave” – to plunder – and wandering the family home, this was precisely what she felt: her life had been ransacked. So much was now irretrievable.
This book, she notes in an introduction, is an investigation of a state that floats somewhere between diagnosed mental illness and daily life; she is her survey’s principal case, but she’s interested, too, in the “historical moment” whose anger and loss, she insists, can “be understood as sharing a set of emotions” with her own. Everyday Madness divides, then, into three. The first section focuses on the death of her husband, the historian John Forrester. The second touches on the EU referendum, social media and public rage. The third has to do with consolation, which she finds in the form of her “endlessly fascinating” first grandson.
Grief memoirs are to a degree review-proof. One wants to be kind. But the truth is that very few reach the heart like an arrow. Writing about grief is inordinately difficult; only the most exceptional writers are able to do so in such a way that it seems at once familiar and uncanny. An additional danger lies in the fact – those who have experienced loss will know what I’m talking about – that no one wants to spend too much time with the bereaved, unless they’re going through the same thing themselves. Here is fear and claustrophobia; here is an unremitting misery that can feel contagious. The writer somehow has to give us the worst of it, without scaring us off.
Appignanesi’s book fails by taking the reader close to her grief, with all the airlessness that implies, and yet not close enough; something about her slippy, inexact prose bred in me not understanding, but a feeling of distance. The section on Brexit – it climaxes with someone being vile to her, the daughter of immigrants, in a London market – is a rhetorical leap too far; her rage at her partner’s loss might well be mirrored by what she sees out in the world, but the two are not consequent on one another, or even connected (much of her anger is born of the fact that her husband had an affair before he died, his final abandonment
– the one brought about by his death – reigniting the feelings she experienced when he first left her). In the final section, she moves towards the light, and you’re pleased for her. But really, who doesn’t adore their grandchildren? I wondered at the indulgence of her editor here.
Appignanesi, like her late husband, has a special interest in psychoanalysis. The book is studded with bits of undigested Freud, Lacan and Klein. She also describes her dreams. Some readers may find this interesting, if not wholly enlightening. But I wanted more of her. Not the her that strains for aphoristic effect – “the human condition doesn’t really help all that much when one is being all too human” is a typical example – but the one that is able to acknowledge that the shared burden of illness has an effect on the way a family may experience bereavement; that the unspoken wish (please die now) that inhabits the sickroom brings with it, once the worst has happened, its own punishment; that the dying often want to be let well alone, a desire those who love them experience as cruelty, even ruthlessness. I recognised these things, and wanted her to think more deeply about them. The rest just felt to me like so much noise.
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Lisa Appignanesi investigates ‘a state that floats between diagnosed mental illness and daily life’.