The Faraway Nearby (Viking Books)
Rebecca Solnit is an award-winning author whose distinctive voice has earned her much praise; the San Francisco Chronicle described her as “who Susan Sontag might have become if Sontag had never forsaken California for Manhattan.” Her exquisite new book, THE FARAWAY NEARBY, is set in motion with a gift of one hundred pounds of ripening apricots, which come from a neglected tree her mother could no longer attend to. The story of the fruit serves as a gateway for Solnit to relate intimate details about her own life, from the history of her complicated and tempestuous relationship with her mother, now suffering from memory loss, to an unexpected invitation to visit Iceland, to her own medical emergency.
An exploration of the way we make our lives out of stories, the book is a powerful call to reinvent memoir. Solnit does so by redefining the self, braiding together a story that is as much about how the self extends into the world through empathy and imagination and the stories that sustained her as it is about her own life during a difficult year. THE FARAWAY NEARBY speaks to storytelling structures and is formally inventive itself: the book is fitted together like a Russian doll, with stories within stories and chapter titles that repeat. Stitching together the entire narrative is a fourteenth chapter that runs like a connecting thread throughout the whole book.
Solnit relates a story of the T’ang Dynasty artist Wu Dazoi in which he is imprisoned by the Emperor and escapes through his own painting. Stories, she writes, are like this magical painting – containing entire worlds for a reader to disappear into. Her personal stories serve both as doorways into other narratives which she immersed herself in during this time (from fairy tales to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), and as entry points into the lives of others, from the young Che Guevara learning empathy among the leprosy-afflicted to an Arctic traveler who survived by eating her frozen children and a blues musician who cured himself of drinking by the stories he told.
A fitting companion to her much-loved A Field Guide to Getting Lost, THE FARAWAY NEARBY is a dazzling book about the magic and power of storytelling, the imaginative essence of empathy, and the forces that bring us together and keep us distant.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of twelve books, including A Paradise Built in Hell, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Wanderlust, and River of Shadows, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and Mark Lynton History Prize. The recipient of a Lannan Literary Award, she lives in San Francisco.
Photo by Jim Herrington