In her early 50s, Australian historian Inga Clendinnen found herself diagnosed with an incurable liver disease. As her body and her mind deteriorated, she felt a need to write about her childhood as well as her experience with illness. The result is Tiger's Eye, a moving story about the fragility of self and the strength of the creative spirit.
Though she had written historical texts about everything from Mayan culture to the Holocaust, Clendinnen had never turned her historian's eye inward. Illness, however, forced her hand, and she began to write fragments at first, and then full-blown reminiscences about her parents, aunt and siblings, about her loves, lies, embarrassments and joys, about all of the messy, half-remembered, half-created memories that make up a life. During her many days in the hospital, Clendinnen grew attached to her laptop, the writing serving as her only defense against the cold impersonality of existence in an institution and against the slow wasting of her body and mind.
Luckily, she eventually became a candidate for a liver transplant. Some of the most striking writing in the book comes in the hallucinatory days after the transplant, in which all semblance of a whole, non-fragmented self completely dissolves. Here, her writing becomes a mad, frightening and vivid jumble of images, which nonetheless reveal truths about her mind and personality.
One of the things Clendinnen learns, through her illness and her personal writing, is that she cannot completely rely on memory; memory, she finds, is as much fiction as it is an accurate reflection of reality. This lesson ultimately carries over into her professional, historical writing, which she takes up again once she is well. Memory, she has learned, is unreliable, but however imperfect, it nonetheless forms the foundation of history.
One of Clendinnen's earliest revelations in Tiger's Eye is of the divide that exists between those who are well and those who are ill. She soon learns that little communication is possible between the two sides. Her memoir, however, ultimately works to bridge that divide. To take the Alice in Wonderland metaphor she offers in the book's opening pages, Clendinnen shows how she fell into the rabbit hole of illness and returned to tell the tale.
Vivian A. Wagner, Ph.D., is a freelance writer in New Concord, Ohio.