A slim, elliptical memoir from novelist, poet and playwright Levy.
Only in the most expansive terms can this be considered a book “on writing,” as it is subtitled, though it could be considered a portrait of the writer as a young girl. Most of it at least, for the framing is plainly the author’s adulthood, before the publication of her well-received novel Swimming Home (2011). It begins: “That spring when life was very hard and I was at war with my lot and simply couldn’t see where there was to get to, I seemed to cry most on escalators at train stations.” Levy provides no context for her existential crisis, but she recounts her geographical cure to Majorca, where she shared a restaurant table with a Chinese man, who asked her where she was born. She writes, “I’m not sure I went on to say everything you’re going to read now.” Levy was born in apartheid South Africa, living in Johannesburg, when her father was imprisoned for being a member of the African National Congress. The author then lived with her godmother, where she didn’t quite fit with the family and, perhaps symbolically, freed a bird from its cage (as she’d desired to do for her caged father). Eventually, her father was freed, and the family exiled itself to England, where Levy wondered, “How was I ever going to escape from living in exile? I wanted to be in exile from exile.” Her full-circle return to the Majorca of the book’s beginning brings a perspective informed by politics, feminism, and the challenge and redemption of writing: “What do we do with knowledge that we cannot bear to live with? What do we do with the things we do not want to know?”
Readers get only a vague sense of what these things we don’t want to know might be in a book that seems like a catharsis for the writer but might prove enigmatic for most readers.