The problem is the one I always have when trying to discuss a book that is all about a real person by themselves. It’s almost impossible, unless you are going to be extraordinarily cautious, to talk about this sort of memoir without seeming to be reviewing the their life rather than how they have written about it.
So this might be a bit disjointed (why change the habit of a lifetime, I hear you ask).
First things first, Candia McWilliam is the author of three (I think) novels and a book of short stories. I have these in my possession and have read them all apart from (I think) the short stories. I really like her work, it’s difficult to describe in terms of style but the best way to put it I suppose is that it isn’t simple; she was often picked on by Private Eye for being pretentious, for example. So its been a real shame that she hasn’t published anything since the 1990s.
But What to Look for in Winter is really about the blindness which she developed from 2006, a condition called blepharospasm where vision isn’t impaired in terms of the eyes themselves, but you cannot open them. It’s about dealing with a condition that prevents her from indulging in the one thing that keeps her going – reading. It’s also about her life, her marriages, her children, her alcoholism, the things that influence her and what she goes through to find a way of seeing again, and the operations that are designed to allow her to open her eyes.
I found it incredibly moving and at times almost impossible to read because of her pain over her failed relationships and how she views herself, but it was also difficult to put down. It’s not what I would call a misery memoir, it’s hard going in places but it is also really worth persevering with, although the thing that stuck with me is how connected she still is with the past. She shares a bond with the fathers of her children which I understand but they are so heavily involved in her daily life, even before her blindness, in a way that I found very strange. I’m not sure I could keep such a close connection with people whom I had hurt or who had hurt me in the ways that she describes. But as I said at the beginning, not for me to judge, though i did get a bit impatient with her occasionally.
So rewarding, but not a light or easy read.
Postscript: an interesting review by Andrew Motion in The Guardian can be found here.