Thursday, February 23, 2017

Bleaker House

Bleaker House by Nell Stevens
Knopf Doubleday:3/14/17
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385541558

In Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World author Nell Stevens writes about spending three months in the Falkland Islands, during the winter, all in pursuit of writing her first novel. This memoir is a very highly recommended compilation of her life, visiting the Falklands, and her first book.

After completing an MFA degree at Boston University, Nell Stevens is offered a fellowship that allows her to live, all expenses paid, anywhere in the world while she writes her first book. Others may choose Paris or a retreat, but Stevens decides to go to Bleaker Island in the Falklands, located on the southern tip of South America in the Antarctic waters of the South Atlantic - during the winter months. She chose this because she felt like it would be the perfect way to eliminate distractions and help her focus on writing her novel.

After staying for several weeks in Stanley , the capital (which has little to offer, but does have seven pubs) she learns about the residents great mistrust of Argentinians and journalists, and the careful records kept of family trees due to the limited population. Stevens then proceeds on to Bleaker Island where she is the only guest in a guest house. The island is either population 1 (Stevens) or three when the owners are on the island.

"Why do you do it to yourself?" wonders her mother.  A novelist friend helps answer the question, "That's the thing about being a writer. Every bad experience you have is good material."

The only way for Stevens to get to Bleaker is by air, which means that Stevens has to pack in all her provisions for her stay and there is a weight limit. She has carefully packed enough food for 1,085 calories a day, which requires counting out her daily ration of raisins and almonds. On the island she tries to write her novel surrounded by sheep, penguins, caracara birds, and cattle on the stormy, snow and sleet covered wind swept island. And she does start a novel -  a terribly bad novel.

I found Bleaker House entertaining and engaging. In it Stevens creates a mosaic of her writing life. She has compiled pieces of ideas together among the stories of her travels, observations, and experiences on Bleaker that include snippets from other fictional writing she's done, life experiences and stories, writing while at a job, and parts of the novel she wrote on Bleaker. While she doesn't come away with a good novel, she did leave the island with a book. It is a wonderfully insightful and honest look at the creative struggles behind writing a novel that includes wry humor, writing advice she's received, personal anecdotes, and how you can't escape yourself even when you are the only one on a remote island. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.

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