My Reading Life: Bleaker House by Nell Stevens

Book cover image for Bleaker House by Nell Stevens

Ah, the lure of “If Only …” to writers.

If only I could quit my job, then I could really focus on my writing.

If only I was independently wealthy. If only my kids were older. If only I had my own writing space. If only I could get an MFA. What’s your personal “if only” that you believe is the magic circumstance that would transform you into a REAL writer?

For Nell Stevens, that “if only” is, “If only I could get away from the distractions of the world.” She goes down the “If Only … MFA” route to find that other students, crushes, socializing, and working STILL distract her. So when the students in her program are offered fellowships to write anywhere in the world, she chooses the remote Falkland Islands, off the coast of South America and on the edge of the Antarctic. There, she is the only inhabitant of a guest house on Bleaker Island. The island itself is home to just one couple who lives there part-time, managing sheep and cattle herds.

The length of Nell’s stay in the Falklands and her ambitions for her novel basically equate to doing NaNoWriMo abroad without any competing responsibilities. Sounds both lovely and maybe a little crazy-making.

It’s not entirely surprising that even after pursuing the ultimate “if only” writing destination — a practically deserted island — Nell’s writing goals still elude her. Certainly some circumstances are more conducive to writing than others, but no matter how we order our lives around our writing, we still have to wrestle with ourselves and our motivations. I related to a lot of this, Nell’s desire to get away from distractions, the exhilaration of a good writing day and the utter despair of a bad one. Like Nell, I have made decisions about my life that I hoped would be more conducive to my writing. I quit a full-time job for freelance work back in 2008, believing that more control over my schedule would allow me more freedom to focus on my own work. This sort of ended up being true. Mostly, I spent more time submitting my work and I did get published more during that time than during any other period of my life. But what I didn’t factor in is that I would be working more hours than I ever had before to make ends meet as a freelancer, that setting work-life boundaries would feel nearly impossible, and that daily earning goals would be a tyrannical master. I ended up making a big move so that I could cut my rent bill in half. That move led me to meet my husband so the changes I made in pursuit of my writing ended up paying dividends in my life’s story, but it was not the magic bullet I hoped it would be for my productivity.

Nell also learns more about herself and has time to reflect on her life, her memories, her goals, and who she might be without the noise of the world around her, although the great novel she hoped to write remains elusive. In large part, this is a book about making peace with artistic disappointment and finding a way to move forward, anyway. I appreciated that aspect of it.

I was also really into the descriptions of the weather and setting (a string of subzero days in my RL is what reminded me that I owned this book and reading it felt apropos to the season). The overheard conversations from island residents give just a glimpse of what it might be like to live in the Falklands full-time. Stevens intersperses fictional pieces with the memoir, both excerpts from the attempted novel and a handful of short stories with clear connections to Nell’s real life. Nell’s fiction style wasn’t quite my cup of tea (except for “Character Study” near the end, which was amazing), so I found these sections to be distracting. They very much felt like the work of a “young writer” trying to prove herself. The slog of getting through the fiction (which felt kind of forced on me when I’d wanted a memoir) to get back to the Falklands narrative was the main reason that I gave this book just three stars. But there is no doubt that Nell Stevens is a talented writer or that she managed to make something meaningful out of her time on Bleaker Island.

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