Like a fairy-tale princess, Rebecca Solnit received an ambiguous bequest from her Alzheimer's-stricken mother. Three hefty boxes, approximately 45 kilograms, of apricots from her mother's tree, lugged home after her mother was moved into an assisted-living facility. An overabundance of abundance can be its own kind of punishment, a fairy-tale curse, and the apricots, carefully separated and laid out like a carpet on her bedroom floor to prevent rotting, were Solnit's burden, and her story to tell. "Stories are compasses and architecture," she reminds us at the outset of her magnificent new book The Faraway Nearby. "We navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like Arctic tundra or sea ice."
Solnit is perhaps best classified as a storyteller, because no other designation would fit her quite so well. She is a writer of superlative non-fiction works of a staggering diversity and range, veering from River of Shadows, her study of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge and the American West, to A Paradise Built in Hell, about the surprising makeshift communities born out of catastrophes such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina. The Faraway Nearby can be categorised as an interior travelogue - a travel guide to Solnit's inner depths. It is a memoir of a difficult period in Solnit's life, characterised by her mother's steady decline and her own diagnosis with a pre-cancerous growth and subsequent surgery. But The Faraway Nearby is unwilling to settle for being a parade of tragedies and mishaps. It is, instead, about what comes afterward. "Stories like yours and worse than yours are all around, and your suffering won't mark you out as special, though your response to it might," she tells herself.
Solnit is a reluctant memoirist, and uses her own story as an opportunity to consider the value of stories ranging from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to that of an Inuit woman named Atagutaluk, driven by desperation to cannibalism. Writing is an opportunity to strip away the layers of politesse that keep us estranged from honesty: "Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone." It is a solitary trip into the polar reaches of the self, a journey that, if successful, prompts further solo expeditions. "If you succeed in the voyage," Solnit says, "others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet." The Faraway Nearby is both guide and example, a memoir about the act of remembering.
An astute cultural critic, Solnit was a full-throated supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy hardly appears here, and yet its desire to sing the body politic is everywhere in The Faraway Nearby.
Solnit is asking us to pause, to consider the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, and to rethink the unstated assumptions of our own interior epics. She offers the example of the birdman cult of the Rapa Nui of Easter Island, who risked death to capture the first tern egg of the season, and the concomitant glory that came with it.