My first experience with Joan Didion’s work was through her essays/notes compiled in her book South and West. This book was introduced to me through Emma Roberts and Karah Preiss’s online book club, Belletrist. I followed them on Instagram and felt so lucky to have found a place to discover new books and authors, like Joan Didion.
Being that this book is not a story necessarily or even a complete idea, it can feel like you’re not quite getting what you’re supposed to be getting out of it. At least that was my experience. There were several passages that felt as if they were saying something profound or making some astute observation that was just over my head or out of my reach. Didion’s writing style is very conversational as it is, I can’t speak to her fiction unfortunately, but this book and her other piece of nonfiction, The Year of Magical Thinking, both had a very casual tone that also felt like each sentence is packed a significant amount of meaning.
One of my favorite lines in the book is, “To be a white middle-class child in a small southern town must be on certain levels the most golden way for a child to live in the United States” (p. 81). From her “Notes on the South”, this observation made in 1970 feels like a simple observation, but addresses issues of race and privilege still relevant in today’s United States 47 years later.
In an interview with Emma Roberts on Belletrist, Didion says of South & West,
“I went through my notebooks and thought I might have something here. I’ve yet to discover whether I did or not. I know when most pieces are finished, but with these I never knew. At the moment, I don’t seem to be any closer to knowing.”
Because of this uncertainty, much of the writing made me feel like I was having a difficult time finding my feet in the text. I often felt that I either needed more context or that I needed to be more familiar with Didion and her previous work or writing style in order to fully grasp what her words were working to convey. It’s certainly an interesting look at the process of an extremely accomplished writer and suggests how a simple detail can be made significant through the eyes of someone looking to delve beyond the surface layer.
The other work of her’s I recently read, The Year of Magical Thinking, describes Didion’s experience in the year following her husband’s death. Again her conversational tone comes through in her writing, but her use of repetition to tie together certain moments or connect thoughts she recalls bring a structure to her writing that merges the conversational with the story-telling style of prose.
In this book, Didion allows herself to be extremely exposed and vulnerable, trying to put into words what it’s like to lose someone who has been an extension of yourself for so long. In addition to re-living and analyzing her husband’s death, Didion delves into her daughter Quintana’s declining heath that became intertwined with her husband’s loss. Although her daughter passed away just before The Year of Magical Thinking was published, Didion declined to revise her book and instead dedicated another work, Blue Nights to discussing the death of her daughter.
The openness with which Didion shares her experience is extremely real and greatly appreciated. As I was reading, I felt that this would be a book I returned to when I lose someone close to me in the future and am looking to somehow make sense of it or put those feelings into words.
As the author of five novels and nine works of nonfiction, Joan Didion is an author that I’m sorry to have only just discovered. I look forward to reading more of her work, her memoir Blue Nights and some of her fiction works in particular.
As always, thanks for reading!