If you were given the chance to live and write anywhere in the world for three months, where would you go? And what impact would the experience have on your writing? That is the question Nell Stevens answers in Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World.
Memoir by its very nature tends to veer toward navel-gazing; it takes a degree of intellectual rigor and self-depecration to pull it off without being dull at best, annoyingly narcissistic at worst. I struggled with this problem myself, when, at the age of 28, I traveled solo to Beijing for work. During my time there, I tried to make a memoir of it, but upon my return home, the memoir became a novel. I ultimately felt that, at my age, I could tell a story, but my own story wasn’t interesting enough to make a memoir.
So I was more than pleasantly surprised by Nell Stevens’s Bleaker House, a memoir about the writer’s time isolated on the frozen Bleaker Island, with only the penguins for company. How she came to be there would be the envy of any young writer. Upon completing their MFA year at Boston University, students are given an unusual opportunity: every student receives a fellowship to pursue his or her writing for three months anywhere in the world.
When Stevens chooses the tiny, isolated Bleaker Island in the Falklands–in order to get away from everything, to write her novel in solitude and struggle–the director of her MFA program advises against it. Why not Paris? he wants to know. But Stevens is determined to leave behind the distractions of Boston, and of her home city of London, of civilization in general, and be a writer. Getting to the island is difficult, and she is allowed only a very limited amount of luggage. Because the island has no stores and no residents beyond the mostly absent owners of a barely-operating farm, she must bring all of her supplies with her. She allots 1,000 calories per day, mostly in the form of instant oatmeal, raisins, and Ferrero Rocher chocolates.
What emerges from her grueling self-imposed exile is not a novel, but instead this memoir: a blunt and beautifully introspective examination of solitude and the creative process. She discovers that an island of one’s own is a far cry from a room of one’s own, and a story doesn’t necessarily flow just because you’ve shut out all ordinary distractions. Hunger and loneliness prove to be even more formidable distractions, and the time stretching out before her is more harrowing than liberating.
Interspersed throughout the memoir are snippets from Stevens’s failed novel. While the fictional interludes serve to show the way life feeds into art, they are the least interesting part of the book, at times feeling like filler. That said, as I read the fictional chapters, it occurred to me that they were bizarrely marketable, and had she finished the novel, it might have proved an easy sell. Instead, she returned home to London and wrote something stranger and more riveting, a hybrid gem of a book that captures the heady, scary, promising feeling of just starting out.
While the failure of the novel vexed the writer, it is to the reader’s advantage that Stevens did not write what she set out to write, but something else entirely. The something else entirely is where the beauty and heart of this book lie.