Wednesday 12 December 2018

Novelist reflects on packing away a life in wake of divorce

Memoir: The Cost of Living, Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton, hardback, 208 pages, €15.50

Deborah Levy: on exploration of womanhood
Deborah Levy: on exploration of womanhood
The Cost of Living

Joanne Hayden

When she was around 50 and her life was supposed to be "slowing down, becoming more stable and predictable", writer Deborah Levy left her marriage. She was adrift, her marriage was a boat, and if she tried to swim back she would drown. Separating from her husband was, she says, the best thing she ever did, but the fallout was devastating - emotional, financial and psychic - and she was still adrift.

In The Cost of Living, she reflects on her experiences after she left, the practicalities of having to construct a new life and what that new life might mean. Like her previous memoir, Things I Don't Want to Know, the book is concerned with gender politics and explores womanhood and friendship, being a writer, mother and daughter.

Twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Levy uses her novelist's eye to create succinct, memorable scenes that illustrate and circle back on her themes. On the Eurostar train, an older man asks a teenage girl to move her computer. The girl puts it on her lap. "This was a small rearrangement of space," Levy writes, but the outcome was that the girl had entirely removed herself from the table to make room for his newspaper and lunch. Again and again, she returns to this subject: women not being allowed - or not allowing themselves - to take up physical and conversational space.

Reflective rather than didactic, she questions imbalances, the double standards, the "complicated and confusing" politics of the modern home. She includes several examples of men she knows obscuring, reducing, trivialising, undermining or trying to obliterate women. A male colleague forgets women's names. Her best male friend refers to his "wife," rather than using his wife's name. Another man refuses to look at his wife "clearly telling her that she did not exist for him".

In certain ways - its emotional truth, its psychological and philosophical depth, its beautifully nuanced prose - the book resembles Aftermath, Rachel Cusk's divorce memoir, and Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill, a fragmentary novel about marriage and parenthood.

Levy's paragraphs are finely weighted and inform each other on multiple levels. She moves between different time periods, linking the domestic to the intellectual and herself to her muses, especially Simone de Beauvoir. Her head is full of writers and thinkers - Marguerite Duras, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, Heidegger, Freud - and they are as central to the narrative as her mother, daughters and friends.

The book's fragmentary form suits its subject. She is documenting the impact of dismantling a home, packing up a life, and this has the effect of flipping time into a "weird shape." Though she's honest, she's also fair - it's not a book about her husband, he doesn't come into it much, and we only get hints of why her marriage might have broken down.

Funny and wise, Levy is the perfect guide through the complexities and contradictions of her new reality. She will never stop grieving for her long-held wish "for enduring love that does not reduce its major players to something less than they are", but she learns to embrace uncertainty and find new meaning, living with hope as well as grief.

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