If ever a word in the English language was more fraught with meaning, misunderstanding and creative potential than story, I'd like to know it. Perhaps love is a close contender, but as Rebecca Solnit's THE FARAWAY NEARBY demonstrates with such compelling and quiet power, story and love are so intertwined that they could be accused of conflict of interest.
Solnit challenges the very roots of what our society, specifically a Western capitalist-consumerist one, identifies in its limited way around the concept of stories and personal narrative. Writing fact-based (or even fact-motivated) autobiography or memoir is one thing; writing about reflected experiences that are allowed the elastic freedom of truthful change and evolution is quite another. The landscape of Solnit's memory is almost a genre unto itself, a vast expanse in which the universal and intimate literally travel side by side.
On one level, THE FARAWAY NEARBY recounts Solnit's arduous journey through her estranged mother's final years, as Alzheimer's disease progressively disconnected her cognitive abilities and self-awareness. It wasn't simply a matter of arranging an elderly woman's life and affairs as she transitioned from independence to nursing home care. It was also about rearranging and reframing a deeply entrenched story of mother-daughter contention that had persisted from Solnit's earliest childhood and infected an otherwise very successful adult career. When mother and child roles were reversed, a new intimacy and understanding emerged that came as close as anything to reconciliation.
On other levels, this introspective masterpiece probes the often-avoided areas of failed and successful relationships, our delight and fear of the transcendent, the spiritual implications of serious illness, the always foreboding intimations of mortality, and the elusive quest for a definable and structured identity. The list sounds so contemporary, so self-absorbed, so same-old, and yet is anything but the pat and predictable kind of account that fills too much time on TV talk shows. As I learned from my first moments with THE FARAWAY NEARBY, the only way to do full justice to Solnit's far-reaching exploration of life's story is her intended medium --- the one-on-one relationship of turning pages and receptive mind.
Oddly enough, and strangely endearing, Solnit anchors her reflection around the unexpected and inconvenient "legacy" of an abundant crop of apricots from the tree at her mother's former home. The task of having to sort, discard, preserve and give away the enormous pile of fruit before it all dissolved into a bacterial mess on her floor is intricately woven into the complex fabric of simultaneously engaging and letting go. Chapters about apricots become the redemptive bookends of her storied journey, without limiting or even pretending to conclude things in a typically tidy, literary way.
While THE FARAWAY NEARBY could only emerge from Solnit's unique and unconventional life, it couldn't have become what it is without her inventive and meticulous absorption of myriad other stories, all of them filtered through the lens of her learning, experience, aspirations and self-confessed shortcomings. That lens takes on many colors and textures, sometimes soft and rose-tinted, other times gritty and harsh; still other views are cloudy and questioning, leaving their resolution an unsolved mystery.
If you've ever been skeptical about the primal power of the human narrative, ever wanted to leave the academic English-lit or professional psychotherapeutic highways that define story in rigid and sometimes pejorative terms, Rebecca Solnit will take you there in an amazing and memorable off-road journey.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch