There are many facets to this diamond among memoirs. And there are many layers to Joan Didion’s grief and mourning recorded in the year following her husband’s death. He is magically all too present in these pages, even though John Gregory Dunne died on 30 December 2003. The magical thinking of the title is the belief that Joan can bring him back, that he is not dead. But it is also the belief that Joan could have done something that would have altered the outcome. And it is also the conceit we all share – at least at some level for most of the time – that we are not dying, that we can put off our end. And then we become aware. Not for nothing does Didion quote Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall – ‘It is Margaret you mourn for.’
At the same time that Joan Didion’s husband died in their New York apartment, their daughter Quintana was also fighting death in a New York intensive care unit. One aspect of this memoir is the mother’s realisation that in the final analysis, she cannot protect her daughter from dying, any more than she could prevent her husband’s death. Over the following year Quintana has to go through rehabilitation, first as an in-patient, and then back home with her husband. Joan too, has to recover from the jolt to her existence – ‘You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.’ One cognitive symptom of Quintana’s illness, the islands of memory within an ocean of indistinctness, is also a feature of Didion’s grief. Important details recalled by Didion may be true, or, she muses, has she misremembered them? We can understand the bodily effects of bereavement shock through the parallels with Quintana’s sickness. Those bodily processes have cognitive consequences, and Didion acknowledges how close she was to madness – she even gave the wrong address when requesting the autopsy report, giving an address from early in her married life.
Joan Didion’s memoir explores her emotional and cognitive responses to John’s death and absence. She acknowledges her anger towards him for leaving, and also her guilt. But at the same time she explores their time together, the houses she shared with him, their favourite eating places, times he waited for her to finish work, writing projects they collaborated on – it is an elegy to her husband, and to their time together, even as it is also a scream of pain.
There are points of comfort along the way. Joan Didion describes the comfort she derives from immersing herself in rituals – preparations for the following Christmas’ entertaining are rituals that are nourishing even as she resents the effort involved in the social interactions. She acknowledges the present that John gave her in the month before his death, a compliment on her writing ability, and wonders if he had some inkling of his imminent death. The funeral ritual was curiously distancing, and Didion instead records the sorting of clothes and shoes, a sorting that it is still incomplete at the end of the year, a logical consequence of the magical thinking.
Didion, Joan (2005) The Year of Magical Thinking, London, 4th Estate
Audiobook available (read by Barbara Caruso):