So many of us speak of writing a novel. Often it is just that: speaking about it. So Nell Stevens decided to retreat to a small island in the Falklands, to live alone and concentrate on the business at hand: writing a novel. Completing an MFA degree at Boston University, Stevens was awarded a three-month fellowship to travel anywhere in the world to work on the novel she was determined to write. Bleaker Island, the name ‘not a metaphor’ is nine thousand miles from England, and a completely desolate landscape, the kind ‘an art-therapy patient might paint to represent depression: grey sky and a sweep of featureless peat rising out of the sea.’ Bleaker House is the book that came out of this landscape and Stevens’ experience with it.
Part memoir, part journal, part travelogue, part writing guide and part novel– there are excerpts from the ‘dreadful’ novel that Stevens attempts to write dotted throughout – Bleaker House is a spirited and connecting book. It’s funny and smart. Weighing the raisins that contribute towards her daily diet so as not to overbalance the small aeroplane makes me smile, as does the nod of recognition that the horror of ‘being without constant Internet access feels like free-floating in outer space.’
The experience of isolation forces Stevens to focus, and her detailed schedules and the demands of awareness mean that we are treated to acute descriptions of landscape, animals, experience and emotions. The articulation of the experience of writing is powerful, an act ‘which leaves me mentally exhausted but physically unfit, which is rarely completed with any sense of certainty, and which is full of unspecified and doubtful use to anyone.’ Coming to the end of her trip, and arriving at the final step on her plan ‘Work this out! Everything comes together and all the questions are answered.’ triggers panic. There is no happy ever after to the book, and so neither to her trip. If the landscape wasn’t a metaphor, surely the process of writing is.
Fearing that she has failed by not returning home with a novel, concerned about the judgement from others, and Stevens evaluates why she went to the island far from home. Perhaps it wasn’t to tell the story she thought.
‘I wanted to find out everything about myself,’ she confesses, ‘not just the profound and often boring things to do with childhood memories and self-respect, but also the practical stuff, like what my first book will actually be about…there is no finished novel. Instead there is this strange, surprising, amorphous thing, this other kind of story I have accidentally, fragmentary told.’
It’s a far better book than the one she went there to write.