All the Lives We Ever Lived

All the Lives We Ever Lived

Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf

Book - 2019
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Katharine Smyth was a student at Oxford when she first read Virginia Woolf's modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse in the comfort of an English sitting room, and in the companionable silence she shared with her father. After his death--a calamity that claimed her favorite person--she returned to that beloved novel as a way of wrestling with his memory and understanding her own grief. Smyth's story moves between the New England of her childhood and Woolf's Cornish shores and Bloomsbury squares, exploringuniversal questions about family, loss, and homecoming. Through her inventive, highly personal reading of To the Lighthouse, and her artful adaptation of its groundbreaking structure, Smyth guides us toward a new vision of Woolf's most demanding and rewarding novel--and crafts an elegant reminder of literature's ability to clarify and console. Braiding memoir, literary criticism, and biography, All the Lives We Ever Lived is a wholly original debut: a love letter from a daughter to her father, and from areader to her most cherished author.
Publisher: New York :, Crown,, [2019]
Edition: First edition
Copyright Date: ©2019
ISBN: 9781524760625
1524760625
Characteristics: 308 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm

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jstalmer
Oct 02, 2019

A truly remarkable read. The author harnessed the power of Virginia Woolf in the telling of her story. So many bells were rung and so many things resonated as I read. Woolf always resonates with me in a way that few in my life truly understand, but that’s not the only reason this memoir resonated.

By structuring this memoir by adding in Woolf’s iconic novel, it just made it all the more poignant. I really liked how the author would share a passage from “To the Lighthouse” and then tie that to Virginia’s real life and then tie all of that to her own. It’s not necessary that you have read or loved Woolf’s novel to enjoy this memoir, but it will make it all the more poignant if you have and if you do.

The way Woolf measured her happiness against the memory of being in her childhood home by the beach was apparent in her writing. The author of this memoir had a similar experience. I think we all do. There is one home that I lived in until I was eight. Another family lives there now but it is where I feel tied. It’s where things happened. It’s where I was most myself until I wasn’t. When I think of home, I think of this place up on the hill with that view of the water.

I love the moment when the author realizes that her father had a life before her. It’s one of those things that doesn’t occur to children very often - that their parents had a full life before they arrived. And how the author talked of marriage: the author’s and her parents and Virginia’s and her parents. There was something so intoxicating about how she wove that chapter together.

The prose in this memoir on its own didn’t have poetry (except when Woolf was interjected). But the way she wove the story was poetic as a whole. And her skill as a writer is excellent. The words never distracted from her meaning.

As the author looks at death and the void that comes after, I was struck at how she so poetically braided the layers. It was so beautiful and masterful how she crafted some of the passages. Her discussion of grief was very powerful. A must read.

When she writes of gliding back and forth between memories, all of them set atop the other like transparencies, it reminded me of an epiphany I had circa 1999 where I saw every moment happening at once. The image makes perfect sense but I will have to paint it someday in hopes the words might come to describe it. To date, words are not enough.

The most poignant part of the book is when the author writes of death. How when someone we love dies, how we find ourselves in the past with such urgency. It is the only place our loved one resides. Near death, the majority of time is spent in the past. It’s like we die in the past and not the present. My mom who is dying talks about the past more and more. When I took care of my grandmother her last year of life she did the same thing. She had trouble remembering what happened five minutes before sometimes but she had vivid detailed memories of her past. Those memories were more vibrant and alive than her present. We all live a lot in the past and the future, but maybe when one is dying, the future is quelled and only the past remains.

There is so much about this novel that was beautiful and hard and completely worth my time. This is a book that will leave behind gifts to open for years to come. There are some passages that will leave your heart pounding and others that will have you forgetting to breath. I can’t recommend this memoir highly enough.

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