Book Review

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

At one time I regularly read Psychologies Magazine.  One month I came across an article which focused on storytelling and eloquently described the connections that weave us all together.  It was 2013 and The Faraway Nearby had recently been published. I was so intrigued by the excerpt of Rebecca Solnit’s that I immediately bought the hardback.  

It has taken me six years to finish reading it!  I’ve never spent so long on one book.  Significant- and tragic- life events have occurred during that period of time, including the sudden death of my ex-husband, father of my older three children.  For a couple of years I wasn’t able to read any books because I simply couldn’t concentrate. Also, Solnit’s book isn’t light reading. My own life was so heavy I found it difficult to find inner space to carry her often sad stories too.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy The Faraway Nearby; the opposite is true.  In fact, I studied it.  That might sound strange, but the writing blew me away.  I’ve underlined passage after passage, made notes, dog-eared pages that I’ve returned to read over and over.  Only my favorite books receive this abuse.

I’ve always been a slow reader- or close reader as Francine Prose would call it. Reading Rebecca Solnit for the first time was an unexpected delight.  Her prose is poetic and I found myself reading sentences repeatedly because they were so interesting. Solnit has truly mastered the art of writing. Her mind is brilliant, her observations profoundly unique.

The Faraway Nearby is non-fiction.  It’s partially memoir, but otherwise impossible to categorize.  It’s about the process of storytelling: how we tell our stories, who listens to them, and how we are changed by the stories we hear.  Our own stories shift shape over time as we let parts go or allow our perspectives to be altered. This book explores myth and fairy tales and the wisdom they impart.  Solnit also writes about literary icons such as Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf. She examines the life of political figure Che Guevara. In another chapter she takes us with her on a journey inside a labyrinth created by an Icelandic artist. The people and places she introduces us to are varied, but there is a common thread throughout, connecting them.

Sonit’s book explores empathy.  She tells us what it was like watching her mother decline as Alzheimer’s slowly eroded her mind and body.  Their fractious relationship changed over time, and she gives an honest account of the process of coming to terms with their shared story.  She also shares her experience of being ill. Mortality is a common theme throughout the book.  

Other stories are weaved together as she travels to Iceland: the story of an arctic explorer in the early 1900’s, as well as a haunting story of an Inuit woman determined to survive, even if it meant consuming her loved ones.  Solnit researched these historical accounts well and presents several different versions of what happened. This in itself is fascinating and one has to question what is the truth? In every family, every history, it seems more common than not that several truths coexist.  What is remembered or forgotten shapes the resulting stories passed on by various individuals.

The title of the book is borrowed from the famous painter Georgia O’ O’Keeffe.  When she moved across the country from New York to New Mexico, a lot of physical distance was placed between herself and her loved ones.  She began signing her letters to them “from the faraway nearby.” 


From the Faraway Nearby, 1937 by Georgia O’ Keeffe

Solnit writes:
“It was a way to measure physical and psychic geography together.  Emotion has its geography, affection is what is nearby, within the boundaries of the self.  You can be a thousand miles from the person next to you in bed or deeply invested in the survival of a stranger on the other side of the world.”

Later, Solnit recounts how the impact of a news story forever changed a blues musician’s life for the better.  When a small child was rescued from a well, it was the catalyst which gave him the courage to rescue himself from his metaphorical “well.”  Though he would never meet the girl who unwittingly helped save his life, they remain inextricably connected (in his mind at least).  

She cites another example of how the faraway and nearby are connected. 

“Many of the great humanitarian and environmental campaigns of our time have been to make the unknown real, the invisible visible, to bring the faraway near, so that the suffering of sweatshop workers, torture victims, beaten children, even the destruction of other species and remote places, impinges on the imagination and perhaps prompts you to act.  It’s also a narrative art of explaining connections between your food or your clothing or your government and this suffering far from sight in which you nonetheless play a role. The suffering before you, in your own home or bed or life, can be harder to see, sometimes, as is the self who is implicated.”

As you can see, there is so much food for thought in this book.  I’d highly recommend reading it if you enjoy memoirs and value storytelling.  It’s a book I’ll treasure for many years to come and will continue to reread. I look forward to reading more of Rebecca Solnit’s books.  I’ve also been following her posts on Facebook and admire her activism. She is an ardent feminist, tireless environmental activist, and agent for social justice.  She also writes political commentary on Literary Hub if you’d like to check her out there too. This Guardian article, as the title suggests, has given me hope in dark times.  It’s definitely worth taking the time to read if you, like me, often feel frustrated by the world’s current state of affairs. If any of this intrigues you, do check out the links attached and let me know what you think.

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