Saturday, April 9, 2022

Review: Bleaker House by Nell Stevens

If you could go anywhere in the world for three months on a fully paid internship in order to write a book, where would you go? Some people would choose to go somewhere glamorous and bustling, living and experiencing the people and place they landed in. Nell Stevens, on the other hand, chose to go to the remote and isolated Faulkland Islands, and specifically to Bleaker Island, in the middle of winter in hopes that the emptiness she'd find there would give her nothing to do but to write and finish a novel. This book is not that novel; it is instead a documenting, a recounting of Stevens' failure to write a novel.

When Nell Stevens finishes her MFA at Boston University, she has the chance to go anywhere in the world for three months and write. Other class members choose vibrant locations like Paris but Stevens thinks that she needs to go somewhere there won't be any distractions from her purpose, choosing Bleaker Island in the Faulklands, in part because of its name (she loves Dickens' Bleak House). She is sure the extreme isolation will focus her and she will come away from her time at the end of the world with the novel she so dearly wants to write. But it turns out that loneliness, gnawing hunger, tramping in a stark, unpeopled landscape, and bone chilling cold are not the best of muses. When she chose Bleaker Island, she researched it just enough to know how to get there and to have accomodation once there but not enough to know that she could have had food deliveries rather than relying on whatever she could pack in her strictly limited by weight suitcase. She was under prepared both physically and emotionally for where she'd landed herself.

This book is not for the reader who wants something, anything to happen in their reading. It is a slow, contemplative look at not writing a novel, an examination into the writing process, and an inconclusive investigation into why she failed at the task she'd set for herself. There is some beautiful nature writing in here and Stevens evokes the desolation, the cold, and the emptiness and immensity of the winter landscape quite well. And no one who reads about her restricted diet and the gift of a perfect, untouched potato will forget that potato for quite a while. Weaving her experiences in the Faulklands with snippets of her unfinished novel, short pieces from her MFA days, and brief forays into her life before Boston, this is not a novel, not quite a memoir, nor is it nature writing. It is a strange, uncategorizable amalgam of all three. Her fiction lacks the seemingly effortlessness of that of her lived experience and often comes across as filler because of the lack of other happenings to write about. Although she doesn't manage to write her novel, her time on Bleaker could still be considered a win of sorts. She did get a book from it, this book, even if it's not the one she set out to write.

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