Books · Gender


What to Look for in WinterWhat to Look for in Winter by Candia McWilliam
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

2.5 stars

Poor Candia questions her own right to take up space of any kind so severely I feel cruel not liking her book much. Perhaps the most extraordinary and powerful thing about the text is its expression of vulnerability. In part it reads as therapeutic confessional, and it finds very little safety, very little comfort. Its crises are unresolved. McWilliam offers that she does not know her own mind, and in this I related. Hearing her knowing, but being unable to control, her own destructive behaviour found a painful echo in me also. The heartbreaking loss of her mother and struggles with her stepmother really clawed into me; I’m very close to my mother and was also an awkward, willful child.

As a memoir of disability, of addiction, of writing and block, of mental instability, this book is… what books are: an attempt to communicate the utterly personal, mind-bound world of experience that becomes in the workshop of language a middle-world, a habitable space where I can start to imagine how McWilliam has felt. This is precious. It does as Proust is said to do: it extends the depths and reaches of empathy and fellow-feeling.

But much of the time I felt I was in the wrong theatre. McWilliam would relate an anecdote and I felt the air hang triumphant at the end for my applause or outrage while I thought ‘so what?’. She doesn’t approve of ‘views’ and I struggle to respect this, as probably a very wise orientation (everything, especially the political, is personal), but I know well, too well, that “the absence of ideology IS an ideology. It’s just a conservative ideology, and everything you see has it.” So often, I wanted Candia to address her self-abasing mental habit from a feminist perspective, but she never does, she never looks for a cause outside herself, she takes all the blame, as women are taught to do.

Folks dwell on the sheer loveliness of McWilliams’ writing, but apart from learning the gloriously expressive flexible word ‘epilimnion’ for the near-surface part of a body of water, I can’t say I found the language especially edifying. I most often enjoy clarity. Memoir is usually cloudy, and this is no exception.

(((I bought this book a good while ago in the days when I relied on a combination of the unmentionable online retailer and bastions of the British mainstream press such as the TLS and the Guardian review to decide what to read next. I was always chafing at this imperfect system, but ensconced in the sticks and with only a few bookish friends, I had to rub along. As I recall, my channels of recommendation were all raving about this book when I picked it up. I have no idea why.

Wait, no, sorry, I do have an idea. It’s because McWilliam is in the British It’s-Culture-Darling bubble. With her class, literary and journalism connections (for example, she’s friends with the editor of British Vogue), she couldn’t possibly publish something without it being Known. This sort of thing gets a big push in these parts. So I was reading with a kind of meta interest in the machinations of the world this book emerged from, which it also deals with, shyly and sometimes luminously (McWilliam succeeds in making me wish I knew some of her friends, especially the lesbian couple) as the substance of personal relationships.)))

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