Last night I watched the South Bank Show programme about Joan Didion, whose book 'The Year of Magical Thinking' I read and loved last year, although 'loved' doesn't seem like the right word. Appreciated. Respected. Almost couldn't bear to read. The book deals with the shock of the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, while their daughter Quintana was dangerously ill in hospital (Quintana died after the book was written). It is a literary dissection of the processes of grief which is both clinically dispassionate in its analysis of symptoms and significance and at the same time unbearably moving in its account of the sequence of the little moments, the telling details, the revelations that occurred during the year after Dunne's death. Any of us who has suffered loss (and who hasn't?) will recognise those stark anagnorises: yes, it has happened; yes, the loved one is gone; no, they will not come back; no, you will never speak to them again; no, no one can ever understand; no, no one can carry this for you; yes, this is how it is. This is how it is, for all of us.
At the start of the book she understatedly, chillingly, says 'Life changes in the instant', as she focuses on the transition from life to death in a moment, on her own transition from wife to widow, to woman with a soulmate to woman with concerned friends but who has to find her own way.
I'm fascinated, gripped, overwhelmed by the fact that we teeter on the brink with every passing second. I speak from experience of a massive loss, many years ago, which took merely an instant to accomplish. That something so big took mere milliseconds to occur - still I wonder at it and still I cannot incorporate it into any sense of just order. A sane world became at best ludicrous, at worst malign.
Some changes, some losses, are insidious, incremental, subtle and unseen, a slow erosion, like the change of a river-course or shoreline. Others are like the shift of plate tectonics; a jarring shudder casting people this way and that, with no concern shown for individual fate or identity. As writers, we have to record the changes, and bear witness to that individuality in the teeth of the blank, gorgeous, finite and infinite universe. As writers we do this, whether what we write is trite and hackneyed or as awe-inspiringly sharp and precise as Joan Didion's work.