SECOND OPINION: Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World by Nell Stevens

Review published on January 27, 2017.

Like the Charlie Kaufman film Adaptation or Geoff Dyer’s book Out of Sheer Rage, this is a book about trying but failing to write the project one has set for oneself – but documenting the journey anyway. Nell Stevens, an aspiring author from England, completed an MFA in creative writing at Boston University and then used her Global Fellowship in Fiction to travel to a location of her choice for three months to write her debut novel. She wanted to go somewhere obscure that had never really been the subject of fiction before, so she decided on the Falkland Islands. Specifically, after a few weeks of finding her feet at a larger outpost, she would be based on the virtually uninhabited Bleaker Island. It should have been a perfect place to put solitude to good use and produce a novel within a matter of weeks, but things didn’t quite turn out that way. Interspersed with passages about Stevens’s experience on the Falklands are excerpts from her novel in progress, in which Oliver Newman, an Oxford PhD candidate, receives a letter from the Falkland Islands telling him to travel there for news about his father, whom he’d long thought dead. This plus three of Stevens’s early short stories – one about a personal assistant who accompanies her boss to Hong Kong, one that appears to be about the death of Amy Winehouse, and one about a student discovering her teacher’s secret life of passion – are printed in a different font to differentiate them from the memoir chapters. However, the variety of forms still makes this a slightly disorienting reading experience. You’re never quite sure what Stevens is writing, but that’s deliberate; she wasn’t sure what she was writing either, or at least not until just before she left. Despite a careful plan for each day’s word count and calories (she had to bring all of her food with her; the island had no shops), she’d failed to write fiction she could feel proud of. “There is no finished novel. Instead there is this strange, surprising, amorphous thing, this other kind of story I have accidentally, fragmentary told. … The punchline is that I did leave the island with a book.” I liked the atmosphere of the book: the claustrophobia and bleak physical terrain of the islands where Stevens spends time; the enforced solitude and attention (unreliable Internet access and only one film on her laptop) that failed to have the desired motivating effect. The thought of her unfinished novel made me gloomy, but it was simultaneously heartening to think that the whole experience hadn’t been wasted. The short stories, though, definitely feel out of place and their inclusion struck me as indulgent. I’d recommend this not to general memoir readers but to struggling writers, who will surely recognise their own feelings here.

Rebecca Foster 3/2

Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World, by Nell Stevens
Picador 9781509824410 hbk Jun 2017

 

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