What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness by Candia McWilliam

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What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness by Candia McWilliam

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Buy What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness by Candia McWilliam at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: It's not an easy book, but it is one of great seriousness and beauty, something that you can read many times and still find within it depth and wisdom – not the wisdom of easy answers, but the rich processes of trying to understand McWilliam's twin curses of alcoholism and blindness. A literary autobiography that mixes bleakness with wit, it weaves through 50 plus years of a fascinating and complex life
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Vintage Books
ISBN: 978-0099539537

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When you know that a biography tackles alcoholism, a mother's early death, feelings of loneliness and worthlessness, culminating in going blind, you expect that this is going to be one of two types of book – the misery memoir, or the positive 'all ends well' tale. What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness is neither. It is a book which is as complex as the life it relates, and as deep.

Candia McWilliam is an accomplished writer so while this biography is full of incident and pain, it is more than that – it is a fascinating piece of art in itself. McWilliam does not plough through the details of her life in rigid chronological fashion, springing life surprises on us along the way. She weaves a complicated web of now and then, of moments from past and present so that from the beginning we realise the complexity of the motives and issues that drove her to alcoholism, and even perhaps to her own blindness.

For McWilliam's blindness is not caused through a sudden accident or event – her eyelids simply (if anything here is ever simple) refuse to open. The tragedy of this self-inflicted deprivation for a woman whose life was reading and writing forms the central core of the book, but this is by no means all – it is not an unrelenting monologue of pity.

For the variety of her life and contacts with writers and artist, the recreation of family life on the Scottish island of Colonsay or in Edinburgh, the twists and turns of her two marriages and relations with her children are all suffused by an intelligent, well informed and, most importantly, fundamentally literary mind grappling with these issues. The books which have been her life are also the lens through which she tries in her darkness to understand what and why, how it came to be like this, and how to adjust. And that is the enduring significance and beauty of the book, not the solutions but the stature of the search for understanding.

Memoirs of literary life are not uncommon, but Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing is an unusual take, when the author decides not to buy a book for a year, but reread, and thus relive, her old collection. Much more challenging, but also witty, wise and often completely hilarious, is Untold Stories by Alan Bennett, the continuing meditation on his past and the people and books that surround it. Bennett was writing this as he was under the 50/50 prognosis of survival from cancer which makes for poignant comparison with McWilliam.

Buy What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness by Candia McWilliam at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness by Candia McWilliam at Amazon.co.uk


Buy What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness by Candia McWilliam at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness by Candia McWilliam at Amazon.com.

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