The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
This is not a book review.
The first time I had heard of Joan Didion was years ago, when as a teenager, I had become obsessed with the life (and the subsequent death) of Heath Ledger. In one of the interviews given by Michelle Williams after Ledger’s death, the interviewer asks the actress about the year following his death. When Williams gives a very poignant answer (like she always does), the interviewer goes on to quote a line (a line that has removed itself from my memory as I’ve aged) from a book called The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. After hearing the quote, I remember Williams taking a deep inhale as though those simple words touched a part of her soul that hadn’t been touched by anything before. As though those few words made the ultimate sense amidst all the insanity. Since then, the novel and the name of the author has stuck in my mind, not for any reason other than the sole power that that single line had on a person. The power of writing.
A couple of weeks ago and years later from that incident, I found the same book that had formed its own solemn space in my brain in one of my favorite book stores in the city. I understood it as fate speaking to me to finally give the book a chance. Days later, when the book still adorned my to-be-read pile, I found out that Joan Didion had passed away. I picked up the book the next day. It only seemed appropriate.
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is more than a memoir.
It is almost like a friendly companion, one that one doesn’t want but generously needs. It’s hard to analyze a book that is so raw. Reading this book feels like traversing through Didion’s brain, while her heart makes a special appearance every now and then. Written in the aftermath of her daughter’s hospitalization from septic shock and her husband’s death as a result of a cardiac arrest, Didion’s grief is indecipherable. But she tries nonetheless to let the readers know the depth and the extent of her grief while trying to make the utmost sense of it herself.
It was a difficult endeavor — trying to imagine myself in Didion’s place, although that’s what I was doing all throughout the read, like I do with other fictional characters in other novels. The fact that Didion’s story was not fictional spurred me to think more about what I would have done had I been dealt the same cards as the prolific writer. The thought of losing a family member to sickness and the other to death is so farfetched that I wondered whether my stance on the world from my privileged glasses is biased towards comfort. However, it’s not that I haven’t lost a loved one, to death or to an adverse circumstance. But, it’s a different depth of tragedy when you lose more than one person at once, one of whom you’ve given birth to. It was hard for me to comprehend what I would do if the home that I live in now which is filled with four more people would suddenly become empty one day. How would I handle such a loss?
I hope I won’t have to answer that question in the near years to come. But reading Didion’s take gives me a flicker of hope that maybe humankind is made for even the strongest of things to weaken them. That no matter how deplorable life is, there is always the dependable someone or something that will push us out of the pit into bright life. Grief comes at us through different ways, but perhaps the way we choose to deal with them is the same.
Maybe, this book will be my dependable something. Because I feel like I can go back to reading this book again, not because I want to experience Didion’s grief, but because I want to relive the strength that she shows, from breaking apart again and again to come to making some sense of her life that has been turned upside down and sideways, not once but multiple times.
The pages in the book reads like a daily journal — it is personal and emotional. Didion does not shy away from penning down her darkest thoughts and that is something that not many can do. My younger self would have hidden behind surficial emotions and metaphorical thoughts or opt to ignore the feelings altogether rather than facing tough situations, particularly those that took a hard toll on my mental health.
I believe that the way we treat grief and the mental baggage that comes along with it is a way to gauge how much we can adapt as a society to different kinds of trials and tribulations. There is still a ton of skepticism in accepting mental health as a serious issue. Dealing with grief is a part of that. This book, for me, provided that relief which we hope to get when we need someone or something after we’ve faced something that is particularly hard on us. It was a friend that I didn’t think I needed. But now I have this book in my room, I feel much better because I can find it within my eyeline and my reach whenever I need a helping hand.
In a way, I found strength in Didion’s grief. Although, I admit I might be infantilizing a situation that was of extreme affliction to the writer. Even as a reader, I must have failed to understand Didion’s pain, and I am not even sure if Didion intended her writing to be so powerful. But I don’t think I am as far-off the point, as Didion herself tries to seek some solace through her lost husband’s words, very similar to how I will use her words through this memoir to do the same.
The power of writing.