Bleaker House by Nell Stevens
A very enjoyable mix of fiction, biography, travelogue and a writer’s creative angst. Nell Stevens decides to spend part of her Masters course writing her novel on the virtually uninhabited island of Bleaker, part of the Falkland Islands. Unlike the small trickle of tourists, she chooses the middle of winter for her stay in the Falklands, to ensure the isolation she needs. With a strict weight limit on the small plane that takes her there, she is limited in the amount of food that she can carry, but she feels this isolation is just what she needs in order to concentrate on the writing. Free from distractions of friends and class mates, popping out for a coffee or a curry.
The reality is not quite as she imagined. Armed with a copy of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Nell has a plan for her own novel but what we end up being given are only seven short chapters interspersed throughout the book. The rest of the tale is part autobiography and partly short pieces of fiction. Sometimes the distinction between these becomes blurred, for example we hear about Nell’s own work history and the offer of work in Hong Kong. A few pages later we are reading what turns out to be a fictional story called The Personal Assistant all about a woman’s work trip to Hong Kong.
When Nell finally gets to Bleaker Island, she begins a rigorous writing regime in order to complete her target of 2,500 words a day. She also writes her journal about life on the island; the weather, the wind and rain, and the wildlife such as sea lions and penguins. We build a picture of her isolation and the effects this has. Her intention was to find the solitude that she imagined was required to write, not to embark on a voyage of self-discovery or a healing process. She did not go there in order to challenge loneliness and solitude. But in the end she found herself producing a very different story to the one she intended and I love her single sentence description of that, “I feel as though I have pulled a rabbit from a hat I was about to put on.”
Bleaker House is a great book, full of humour and some very telling insights, including the amazing ability to survive on raisins, almonds and a single Ferrero Rocher per day for a prolonged period. Although Nell went to Bleaker solely to write her book, she emerged with wonderful insights and with this book, even if it was not the one she planned. Among the insights, some of the fictional pieces are excellent and almost seem to stand alone from the whole book. As well as The Personal Assistant, one at the end of the book called Character Study I found very pleasing.
One interesting insight came from Nell’s observations of her own life and loves. It concerns what others have written, when you discover that they have written about you. In her case they were not pleasing revelations, but writers are magpies, we steal shiny things and hide them away to use at some later point, and I wonder what reaction some of the people I have written about would have if they recognised themselves in some of my own compositions. As with many topics in this book, it is very thought provoking.
The final chapter, Afterwards, written more than a year after being on Bleaker, offers some reflections and one in particular I thought was memorable; “Solitude is the contented twin of loneliness”. Nell’s insights into loneliness make her compare city living with that on the island, and realise that it is possible to feel more lonely on the crowded Number 68 bus across Waterloo Bridge that on an uninhabited island full of penguins.
REVIEWER: Marcus Hobson
TITLE: Bleaker House