Elegant and intense, Rebecca Solnit’s award-winning books and essays chart new terrain in history, memoir, philosophy and activism. The Faraway Nearby continues Solnit’s narrative exploration into new forms of nonfiction prose, resembling most closely her 2006 peregrination A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Solnit’s new excursion is gracefully written, accessible and always deeply thoughtful, and should—if there is any justice in the world—win her many new readers.
“Empathy is a journey you travel,” Solnit tells us, when you tell stories or listen to them, and when you feel another’s pain as your own. Storytelling is one of the central nodes of Solnit’s new book, which begins with the story of her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease and leads into a terrible season of near-daily parental emergencies, culminating in Solnit’s own brush with cancer.
After her mother is moved into a care facility, Solnit receives a gift—or perhaps, a curse—from her mother’s fruit trees: hundreds and hundreds of ripe and over-ripe apricots that she spreads out over her bedroom floor. Her “inheritance” of the apricots prompts a digression into fairy tales, into enchantments and other impossible tasks, such as Rapunzel spinning straw into gold or the Swan Girl knitting vests for her brothers.
Solnit is a spinster in its old meaning, which is to say that she is a weaver of tales. And so this is no conventional memoir, although it is about a difficult relationship between mother and daughter. In The Faraway Nearby, one story always leads to another: Fairy tales turn to a meditation on ice and being cold, to Frankenstein, arctic exploration and a visit to Iceland. A medical crisis brings up the stories of two friends, one who gives birth and one who dies, both prematurely. The theme of radical empathy prompts the conversion stories of Che Guevara and Buddha, of their youthful progression from privilege to revolutionary activism.
Solnit’s writing is so beautiful and prescient it can feel like she is whispering in your ear: “Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.” The solitary writer imagines a space for her solitary reader to inhabit. As we move deeper into The Faraway Nearby, we find that we are not so alone as we thought, that a luminous presence moves before us, weaving a thread that we follow through the labyrinth.