Book review: penguins, potatoes and Ferrero Rocher in Bleaker Island by Nell Stevens
Wanting to be a novelist is among the most ubiquitous aspirations of our time. It is also one of the most pervasively unrealised and routinely dissimulated. Snoop around Twitter, amble through a university, eavesdrop in a café and you will not have snooped, ambled or eavesdropped for long before you encounter somebody talking about the fiction they are writing. The whole world is at it. Or claims to be. Most of us feel at least a flicker of assent when we hear the anecdote about the young graduate who is asked by an old acquaintance what he’s doing for work. “Well actually I’m, um... I’m writing a novel,” says the graduate. “Splendid!”, says the interlocutor. “Neither am I.”
The comedy of the remark lies in its truth: we have all met people who have claimed, falsely, to be writing a novel. But it also arises from the misguided sense that the whole business of writing is a glamorous mystery (and hence worth lying about) and the bewildering fact that long works of imaginative prose do somehow get written. How do these people do it?
The only answer is: variously, and almost always with great pain and application. Will Self only got his first book written because the fear that he might not be able to create one became more acute than the horror of trying. Martin Amis starts every project by telling himself he is composing a very short story. Colm Tóibín thinks progress is impossible unless you are equipped with a brutally uncomfortable chair. Melissa Harrison, one of our finest contemporary novelists, once told me that when she was writing her beautiful debut, Clay (2013), she didn’t (or couldn’t) admit to herself that what she was working on was a novel; Sarah Perry, another of our finest, wrote not a word of The Essex Serpent (2016) until she had established in her mind the book’s entire plot.
Early in Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World – a wonderful account of her own struggle to become a novelist – Nell Stevens records the realisation that, in order to do so, she will need to follow the advice of Ted Hughes. He once said that “For me”, the key to “successful writing has usually been a case of having found good conditions for real, effortless concentration.”
Stevens quotes Hughes’s words in an application to enlist on an master of fine arts degree at Boston University, hoping the course will provide her with an environment in which she will be free from the demands and distractions of her unrewarding office job in London, and transport her from her “friends and family in the UK to a place where I will know nobody from whom to demand distraction”. But once she embarks on her studies, life continues to assert itself: “I make new friends, develop crushes, go on dates and spend more time than I could possibly have imagined on the phone to the Bank of America.”
Nevertheless, salvation beckons. “The programme ends in what it calls a ‘global fellowship’”, whereby “students are sent out into the world, wherever they choose to go, to spend three months living, exploring, and writing.” Still enraptured by Hughes’s vision of ‘“effortless concentration”, Stevens finds herself “pining for empty, remote places: snow planes, broad lakes, oceans, wherever there is more nothing than there is something and where, I imagine, I will finally do the thing I have spent my adult life hankering after, attempting, and interrupting: write a novel”.
Accordingly, she resolves to sequester herself on Bleaker Island, a tiny, hostile and almost totally unpopulated land mass that forms part of the Falklands. A friend quips that she can call the book she plans to write there Bleaker House. Stevens takes the remark seriously.
Yet before she embarks in earnest on her account of her residence on the island, Stevens introduces us to some of the disappointments and peculiarities that have characterised her writing life to date. The most entertaining of these experiences concern a TV show – Any Idiot Can Write a Book – in search of contestants who have finished a novel and are willing to have their work appraised.
“Each week a writer will be voted off and sent home. At the end of the series, the winner will be given a ‘financial prize’ [amount unspecified] and their novel will be published [publisher unspecified].” Stevens applies to take part, is accepted, and finds herself in a farmhouse outside Stratford-upon-Avon with one other contestant and a judge – “an eminent literary critic of whom I’ve not heard”. Stevens’s work is lauded. Her fellow contestant’s, demolished: “‘You are untalented, unimaginative, offensive and tired’,” says the judge. The whole enterprise turns out to have been staged.
From this point, Stevens sets about chronicling her life on Bleaker Island, punctuating her narrative with fragments of the fiction she wrote while staying there, and with recollections of failed relationships, dismal modes of employment, elaborate ruses designed to yield material for literature. These digressions – often moving, absorbing and funny – are elegantly integrated with the main focus of Stevens’s story. It is a mark of her strengths as a writer that they serve to augment the emotional, intellectual and comic strength of the main strand of her memoir.
Here, we follow Stevens as she grapples with an existence on an island that offers no means of buying food, no internet, is routinely afflicted by dismayingly aggressive storms and populated only by sheep, cows, penguins, seals, whale carcasses and an array of vicious birds. Also present are a pair of farmers – George and Alison – who are absent for almost all of Stevens’s residence, but who, when present, like to refer to their guest’s diurnal writing routine as her “doing her words”.
In this setting we see Stevens wrestle with feelings of acute loneliness – and with the terrible alloy of ambition and anxiety that informs the writing life – as she measures out her life in sub-vocalised arguments with Hemingway, handfuls of raisins, powdered soups, Ferrero Rocher (ration: one per day), and a single and never-eaten potato, which functions for the duration of her trip as a kind of talisman.
As we do so, we see Stevens’s novel falter, flow, acquire mass and shape, and eventually give way to a series of revelations, some occasioned by Stevens’s reflections on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (the only book she has with her), others by the experience of solitude – at once daunting and edifying – that the isolated island has afforded her. Her sanity wavers. She begins to gather an apprehension of who she might really be. And eventually of the sort of writer she never knew she was.
Occasionally, Stevens’s telling of this story can suffer from imprecision and redundancy. Weather is described as “deliberately malicious” (malice is deliberate by definition). When “the wind hits” her it hits her “like a punch”. But on the whole her prose is vibrant, attentive and thematically apposite. She describes “waves chewing the side of the settlement”, sees the ribs of a whale “unfolding like a line of parentheses”. And when she traverses the island she observes “only monosyllables: cliffs, birds, waves, sand, sheep, rock, moss”.
These qualities result in a work of immense resonance, inventiveness, affective depth and intellectual weight. It will bring succour and inspiration to anyone who has ever felt the need to write, and a fresh kind of pleasure to all those who cherish the riches of story and the consolations of noticing. Bleaker House establishes Stevens as a uniquely valuable addition to English letters from whom it will be a joy to hear more. Novel? Biography? History? Travelogue? Who cares. All that matters is that Stevens continues: that she persists with doing her remarkable words.
Matthew Adams is a regular contributor to The Review.