What to Look For in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness

This past weekend has definitely been all about books. So rock ‘n’ roll I know. Following on from my post about The Road I was going to blog about the poet whose work I dashed up to Foyles to buy but then I thought no, there’s actually another book I want to wax lyrical about first. Because it’s the one I’m currently engrossed in. And I think it might be one of the best I’ve read in the realm of story-telling for a long time. And it’s a true one.

The book is called, What to Look For in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness and is by Candia McWilliam. It’s an autobiography and usually I steer clear of autobiographies/biographies because I’ve always assumed that they must simply be a recall of one event after another with not much in the way of narrative to necessarily connect them. Plus I’ve never really been enough of a fan of anyone “real” as to  be fascinated enough to read about the minutiae of their life. But this may be a silly preconception because if there are biographical books out there anywhere near as good as this then I’ve been closing myself to an astonishingly rich vein of literature.

But to return to the book. Candia McWilliam is a Scottish author whose entire life had been subsumed by reading, as the book blurb says, her life “depended on reading and writing”. And so it was a particularly cruel twist of fate that, having only just joined the judging panel for the Booker Prize five years ago, she began to lose her sight. She suffered from  blepharospasm, a condition which means that the sufferer cannot open their eyes of their own volition. Her eyes were normal – she simply could not open them. It was her experience of this crippling and awful disorder that prompted her to create her memoir. Parts of it she wrote as her eyesight was failing her and some she dictated to a friend. Whether recorded by pen or dictation it is a remarkable memoir to read for even before her eyes closed she had had a raw and emotional life. This memoir is not just the story of how she coped with her darkening world but also her past struggles with alcoholism, her mother’s suicide and a past filled with sorrow, pain and love.

Her writing is wonderful. I know that some critics found it indigestible and apparently accused her of name-dropping throughout the book in such a manner as to be distracting and vain. Yes, there are a lot of names in the book, some well-known of course but it never feels like they are being dropped in your lap in an effort to impress. Rather that this was the circle she inhabited and so they make an appearance but they are often fleeting ones. And they don’t stick out or make you question why they are there. Well, at least I didn’t question why. This is very much her and her family’s story. And she tells it with such wit and passion and with such a brilliant way with words that I have found myself almost enthralled by the language alone. I love the words she uses – at the beginning of the book she speaks of how certain words burrow their way into her mind and that the newest to do so whilst she was dictating the book was: epilimnion. Epilimnion. What a beautiful word I thought. It means the upper, warmer layer of water in a lake. The part then that we swim in, that buoys us.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough – even though I’m only halfway through it myself. It is an incredibly raw story but also an enormously illuminating one in so many enriching ways. This is no ‘misery memoir’. It is someone’s search for a sense of self. And it is brilliant.

It begins:

“I am six foot tall and afraid of small people.

I am a Scot.

I am an alcoholic.

There is nothing wrong with my eyes.

I am blind.

I cannot lose my temper though I am being helped to…

I exude marriedness and I am alone.

This book is, among very many other things, an attempt to find that temper in order that I may lose it, and in losing it, perhaps, find my lost eyes…”

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