Life changes fast

The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion <em>Fourth Estate, 227pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 140004314X

On 30 December 2003, the writer John Gregory Dunne suffered a fatal heart attack. He and his wife, Joan Didion, had just returned from the hospital where their only daughter, Quintana, was in a critical condition after flu had turned to pneumonia which turned to septic shock. Joan had fixed her husband a whisky and was making supper in the kitchen. They were discussing a book on the First World War that John was reading. One moment he was alive; the next he wasn't. "I have no idea which subject we were on, the Scotch or World War One, at the instant he stopped talking," Didion writes in her unsparingly intimate account of the year following his death - her year of "magical thinking".

It is to this scene that she returns again and again throughout this brief, thoughtful meditation on grief and guilt, love and loss, marriage and motherhood. It opens with the first lines Didion was able to write after her husband collapsed, and with him her world:

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.

Dunne died exactly a month before their 40th wedding anniversary - they were married in California on 30 January 1964. As a result of what Didion calls "the vortex effect", the faintest memory sends her hurtling back in time, and thus we are given unguarded glimpses of the daily life of two writers working happily alongside each other for 40 years. They were "together 24 hours a day" and hardly spent a night apart: she returns repeatedly to one idyllic summer when they would spend the morning writing in separate offices and then go for a swim before watching, oddly, Tenko on television; or the night when, unexpectedly, she had to stay overnight in San Francisco and Dunne flew up from Los Angeles just so they could have dinner together. On her last birthday before his death, he read a passage from one of her novels as he was struggling with a technical problem: "'Goddam,' John said to me when he closed the book. 'Don't ever tell me again you can't write. That's my birthday present to you.'"

Martin Amis has called Didion "the poet of the Great Californian Empti-ness", and, as one of the most respected writers of her generation, she has charted her own way through the landscape of postwar America, from Vietnam to last year's Democratic national convention. But, in her intensely personal style, she was always in some way writing about herself, her emotional response to events and her surroundings. So it is no surprise that, when her own previously "lucky" life was turned upside down, she should have approached it with the same combination of journalistic curiosity and novelist's insight.

For the first time, however, Didion felt words failed to give meaning to the void in which she found herself. This memoir, which documents her struggle "to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months", might less gently have been called My Year of Irrational - or at best Wishful - Thinking. She is disturbed by signs of what Freud described as "grave departures from the normal attitude to life": her refusal to donate her husband's organs, her reluctance to give away his shoes - all-too-common and understandable acts of superstition and hope, the motivations for which she interprets as symptoms of magical thinking. "How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?"

In fact, Didion is almost fanatically rational - "a pretty cool customer", as someone remarks on the night of her husband's death. "In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control." And this is exactly what she does. Her attempts to understand her own suffering, the suddenness of her husband's death and her daughter's precarious condition take her from Matthew Arnold's poetry, through a 1922 book of etiquette, and on to medical textbooks. The textbooks remind her of a trip abroad when she'd become "disoriented by my inability to locate the grammar, the official language used on street signs and storefronts and billboards".

The reader, too, at times becomes overwhelmed by the accumulation of clinical terms and facts. Sometimes no amount of information gives control. But there is much that is fascinating. Grief, we learn, is not an exclu-sively human affliction: dolphins refuse to eat after the death of a mate; geese become lost, searching and calling in vain.

Written in spare, incantatory prose, The Year of Magical Thinking is quite unlike the soggy majority of misery memoirs. The book achieves something that Didion herself thought impossible - it gives voice to the most inarticulate of emotions. It is an extraordinarily eloquent cry of pain. Grief, here, becomes almost a character in its own right - the third person in the relationship, the impostor, the home-breaker. Although she upbraids herself for any signs of self-pity or sentimentality, there are moments when her book seems too raw, too immediate - too unedited - for public exposure. But this, for Didion, is an essential part of its naked authenticity. She offers no reassurances or revelations.

There is no happy ending to this story. In fact, the unwritten epilogue is unbearably sad: this summer, Quintana collapsed and was readmitted to hospital. She died on 26 August; she was only 39. Life changes fast. When Didion's publishers asked if she would like to amend the book to take in this distressing development, she replied: "It's finished." Words, perhaps, finally deserted her.

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The debt pandemic