“I am scared that the life I want to lead, the life of a writer, is inevitably built on loneliness, and I need to know if I can hack it.”
Bleaker House is Nell Steven’s first novel and she hit the nail on the head. The book is messy, unpredictable, and absolutely hilarious.
The book begins when Stevens is granted the chance of a lifetime. She receives a fellowship as a Boston University MFA candidate, which allows her to pick any place in the world to live, fully funded, for up to three months. The aim of the trip is to help write, edit and complete a first novel.
Stevens chooses to fly to a landscape, “an art-therapy patient might paint to represent depression”. She sets herself on Bleaker Island, somewhere in the Falklands, as a sort of test to see if isolation can really force her to churn out a good novel, as well as discover her ‘true self’.
She encounters issues almost immediately. Her food rations are slim, she’s barely packed enough and has to divvy up raisins with painful precision. There is little to no internet connection and the only film on her laptop is, laughably, Eat, Pray, Love. Quelle horreur.
The story is told through excerpts of the novel she is working on, patched together with the account of her time on the island, and some flashbacks of home and the past.
Stevens loses hope that she will complete a good book. In the end, you can guess, she unwittingly creates a new novel, not the one she originally planned, but a better one. This one.
Bleaker House gives insight into the process of the average writer, running through the thoughts, concerns, and dead ends of a creative mind. Stevens tackles advice collected over the years from Dickens, Hemingway and her own teacher Leslie Epstein, to come to her own conclusions. She finds that you can’t follow every writing rule there is, you have to make your own. This is a comfort. I liked how Stevens didn’t pretend to hold some mysterious artistic secret. She is as confused and frustrated as any of us, and doesn’t appear to edit this confusion out. But it’s not sloppy. She’s crafted the story well, and it is fascinating to watch her notes of frustration unfold.
The island lives and breathes on the page. It becomes familiar, perhaps resembling the area of the mind people go to escape, self-punish, or create. It is wild with rocks, crags and penguins, the weather is freezing and never tame, and the prospect of a potato or a bag of apples is enough to give one hope.
Problems I had with this book?
I suppose the font was irritating (fickle me). I detest anything that tries to resemble a vintage type-writer. Also, not a healthy book to read when you're in the midst of panicking about your own abilities in writing, dare I say it, a novel. But other than that, I’ve got nothing. Bleaker Island is fantastic, and, regardless of whether you write fiction or non, totally relatable.