by Erin Rose
Joan Didion is a master of words. Her work, her career, her ease with language is something that both inspires and frightens me. She has written in nearly every genre under the sun but I am particularly in love with her nonfiction work. I devoured the essay collection, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and then began reading nearly everything she’d ever crafted. During this past summer I encountered a particular amount of loss. My mother says people always die in threes. It’s the laws of the universe. I found myself without the proper language to discuss the grief. I am hardly ever without the proper language for anything. It is the one way I know I can communicate with the world and myself. My words are my life. One afternoon I found on the bookshelf in my sisters’ home a copy of, The Year of Magical Thinking. It was as if someone had planted it there for me. I found what I didn’t even know I was looking for.
The Year of Magical Thinking is a work of humility, grace, and devastating loss. It chronicles the sudden death of Didion’s late husband, John Gregory Dunne, in 2003, and the year of her life which followed. At the time of her husband’s death their daughter, Quintana, had also fallen ill and was unconscious in the hospital when he died of cardiac arrest in the living room of their New York apartment. We follow ghosts behind Didion as she deals with the illness of her daughter within the wake of her loss. The book is written with a startling honesty and clarity into the unrecognizable place we occupy when grieving. Didion treads ground others would never dare speak of. You observe her as she observes herself, the shifts in her behavior and her disassociation from reality. The title of the book becomes clear as you realize and she readily admits, a piece of her honestly believed her husband would come back. She also simultaneously recognises the impossibility of this notion. And yet, it makes perfect sense at the same time.
In an interview on NPR after the book was published in 2005, Didion said this in regards to the writing process: “It was simply everything that was on my mind came out and got on the page. And that was kind of my intention, to keep it kind of raw. It occurred to me when I was doing a lot of reading about death and grief that no one told you the raw part. And everyone of us is going to face it sooner or later.”
As I made my way through the pages, stained in coffee and some with tears, I started to wonder if it would be just as powerful to someone who was not in the throws of saying goodbye. I have since then mulled over the question and I can without a doubt prescribe this book to anyone, no matter how near or far you are from grief. It has this overall affect and message that isn’t entirely about the dead; it’s far more about the living. Didion spends countless pages recreating the years they shared together in such detail you feel for her, you ache for her loss, and you are reminded to pay more attention to your own life. She remarks throughout the book that, “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” I think this is the most haunting reminder the book has left me with. We are not prepared, nor can we be, for the ways in which our life will change. The very nature of change is spurned from the unexpected, and we are left as the living, to collect ourselves and the pieces and the shoes that remain behind.
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Top portrait by Mary Lloyd Estrin (1977), second portrait by Brigitte Lancombe (via Vogue).
Erin Rose is a writer who loves black cats, country music and a well made manhattan. She resides across the seas, currently landlocked in Boise, Idaho where she is working toward her MFA in Fiction at Boise State University. Erin is a journalist, blogger, lyricist, and most recently a humbled short story writer. She aspires to visit every continent, fall in love, publish a novel, attend the running of the bulls, learn how to make a well made manhattan, and graduate. You can follow all her words and adventures at roseblacque.com.