Blue Nights

Blue Nights
Joan Didion
Fourth Estate, 188pp, £14.99

There are passages in Joan Didion's memoir Blue Nights which consist entirely of questions. They pile up, one on top of the other, each barely finishing before the next one begins: "Did I get this all wrong? Did I misunderstand a key point?"; "Had she chosen to write a novel because we wrote novels? Had it been one more obligation pressed on her? Had she felt it as a fear? Had we?"

For any long-time reader of Didion, used to her precise and knowing tone, the hysterical questioning is disconcerting. We know her as the master of diagnosis - she stands back from the fray and pins her subject into prose. But her subject here is her daughter, Quintana Roo, who died in 2005 aged 39 from a series of complications after contracting pneumonia. Only 18 months previously, Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, had died of a heart attack. The two had been inseparable, co-writers, first readers, a husband and wife whose lives were entwined. That Didion appears to be floundering in Blue Nights, her voice vulnerable and raw, makes sense: she has suffered beyond reason.

Didion wrote about Dunne's death in The Year of Magical Thinking, a careful book (published in 2005 and later turned into a play) which examined her response to widowhood. The writing was characteristic - contained and elegant - and the work made Didion an unwitting heroine of grief. People would stop her in public places and thank her for writing it, explaining how much it had helped them come to terms with their own bereavement.

This had never been her intention. She once wrote that, as a writer, you are "always selling somebody out". Writing, in her account, is an ungenerous act, and at times Blue Nights feels like a violent response to being cast as a kindly soul. She turns her harshest light on herself and the list of accusations is long. She treated Quintana like "a doll" but also expected her to behave like an adult; she and Dunne never made it clear how much they needed their daughter; they dragged her round Hollywood hotels as they wrote screenplays. More fundamentally, Didion seems to worry that she never fully understood Quintana, a young woman haunted by a mystery that Didion was too self-absorbed to solve. "How could she have even imagined that I could take of her? She saw me as needing care myself."

She is unforgiving of her perceived flaws, castigating her own frailty, anxiety and immaturity ("I had lived my entire life to date without seriously believing I would age"). Quintana is treated more gently: the book recounts her childhood quirks in detail, but the troubles of her adult life, though alluded to, are never fully exposed. Didion recalls how she and Dunne adopted Quintana as a baby, and touches on her daughter's alcoholism and mental illness later in life, but the ferocious analysis is only ever directed at herself. As an interviewer (in New York magazine) noted, "If she'sselling anyone out with Blue Nights, it's Joan Didion."

As a consequence, this book is like nothing else Didion has written - not always a good thing. It lacks her clean and graceful style, a gaze that is sensitive and yet slightly removed. The writing is brutal, unsettling and frantic. Yet how else could she write such a book, in such a moment? The tone, a stripping away of artfulness, is deliberate. Its lack of polish lays bare an anguish that infects her every waking moment, leaving her haunted by the past.

Her memories, she says, are the opposite of solace; they are

by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the Westlake uniforms in the closet, the faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of the people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember.

And yet, cruelly, they are all she has left.

Sophie Elmhirst is a freelance writer and former New Statesman features editor.

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban