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Book Review: The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

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Despite living a world in which we are daily exposed to the news and images of death, nothing can prepare us for the up-close loss of a loved one. Even where this occurs after a period of illness where in theory affairs are put in order and appropriate provisions made, the consuming void of grief is enormous, devastating, and nearly always underestimated by those caught in its maw.

The sudden death of Joan Didion’s husband, the writer and critic John Gregory Dunne, in their New York home and the devastating impact of its aftermath is forensically documented in The Year Of Magical Thinking. The facts are starkly presented without dramatic device or adornment. Married for nearly forty years and occasionally collaborating on screenplays, they lived and worked in the same apartment and had barely been separated for more than a few days in that time.

After visiting their daughter Quintana, a grown woman in her thirties who has been admitted to hospital after contracting pneumonia and septic shock, Didion describes the moment when the world she knew abruptly halted following Dunne’s massive heart attack:

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

From these opening words of her book, the first words she wrote some five months after his death, Didion recounts how she was hurled from the rational world of certainty into the chaotic anguish of loss, grief, and mourning.

Her journalistic instincts to get on top of the facts and make sense of what’s happened quickly come unstuck. No amount of medical research about the heart condition that felled her husband or the chronology contained in the coroner’s report nor still yet, her poring over the weighty academic studies of loss and mourning, gain her a toehold back to the “normal” world from which she had been irrevocably dislodged.

If knowledge is normally equated with power, in the face of death its usefulness is overrated. No amount of understanding the cause and effect can change the outcome or lend “meaning” to her partner’s absence.

In trying to restart her life she becomes a tightrope walker fearing to look anywhere but straight ahead as streets, restaurants, dates, books, and people are rendered off limits lest she be sideswiped by what Didion calls “the vortex”. Happier times are now too painful to bear, once cherished memories now a desolate territory tainted by “what if?” and “if only…”

The demand of caring for her gravely ill daughter occupies much of the narrative. Didion’s smouldering rage at being unable to do anything to help her husband adds to her determination to see her child pull through.

The passages where mother sits with her unconscious offspring tethered to her life-support are charged and incredibly poignant. Any reader who has a child will appreciate the utter nightmare of this situation and hope it's somewhere we never have to be.

When she tells an unconscious Quintana, “You’re safe. I’m here,” Didion reluctantly recognises with a sense of rising panic and horror that nothing can be guaranteed anymore.

The tremendous effort involved in writing such an account, with its raw, honest clarity is obvious. Her constant gnawing over facts and potential portents of what was about to happen to both her husband and daughter becomes obsessive bordering on the deranged.

Didion acknowledges her reluctance to finishing the account. Whilst writing it she is able to keep Dunne from being dead. Finishing the book begins the process of letting go, of moving on with her life but not his.

The unbelievably cruel postscript not mentioned in these pages was that although Quintana apparently recovered, she would later die following complications from acute pancreatitis.

With a book so firmly rooted in reality there can be no neat happy ending, no reconciling force that makes it all fall into place, or defining epiphany to bind together the unravelled threads of Didion’s family life. Instead, there is only the unforgiving forward motion of time and those it leaves behind.

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  • Mark Saleski

    nice review. this was a great book. it reminded me a little of the book that Neil Peart wrote after the loss of both his daughter and wife. a person struggling to figure out who they were (and what the would become) after experiencing such horrific events.

  • I’ve not read the Neil Peart book you mention but you’re right about how Didion struggles with the facts, the randomness, the lack of meaning, the sense of complete uncertainty that such a life shattering event brings. Having recently gone through a bereavement the book resonates very strongly with me. And Didion is a fantastic writer!

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!