Sunday, 21 May 2017

New Life, No Instructions

I do so love finding a book I've never heard of and absolutely need to pluck off the shelves, whether it be in a bookshop or in a library, and read. And so it was with New Life, No Instructions. I was wandering in the Large Print section of my library to find a particular book that was available only in Large Print (Maxine Beneba Clarke's Foreign Soil, borrowed for the second time, hopefully to be read this time), when I came across New Life, No Instructions.

While I am still essentially living my old life, I am living a New Life too, and I also have No Instructions. I liked the cover, loved the title, and picked it up without bothering to read the blurb on the back. Then I read it a few days later.
What do you do when the story changes in midlife? When a tale you have told yourself turns out to be a little untrue, just enough to throw the world off-kilter? It's like leaving the train at the wrong stop. You are still you, but in a new place, there by accident or grace, and you will need your wits about you to proceed. 
Gail Caldwell contracted polio as an infant in 1951, and was left with a permanent disability in her right leg. Her right leg was shorter and weaker than her left. As she grew older she developed chronic pain in her right leg. She was always an active woman, with a fondness for walking large dogs and rowing, but she was slowing down, unable to walk her dog, and dealing with a lot of pain, "limping around for a decade". 
Most of all I told this story because I wanted to say something about hope and the absence of it, and how we keep going anyway. About second chances, and how they're sometimes buried amid the dross, even when you're poised for the downhill grade. The narrative can always turn out to be a different story from what you expected. 
This is a memoir of resilience, fortitude, will and hope. Gail also talks about the death of losing both her parents relatively quickly, and the death of a close friend around the same time (which I believe is the subject of one of her other books, Let's Take the Long Way Home).
The other thing I know now is that we survive grief merely and surely by outlasting it- the ongoing fact of the narrative eclipses the heartbreak within, a deal that seems to be the price we pay for getting to hold on to our beloved dead. 
It is also a story of addiction, alcoholism, family and community. And dogs, there's quite a bit about dogs.  Gail is somewhat verging on a crazy dog lady. 
Dogs are the mirrors of our humanity. 
New Life, No Instructions was a different story to what I was expecting after the briefest of glimpses at the cover, but I love a Large Print read from time to time, even slow readers like me fly through them because of the big font. I'd never heard of Gail Caldwell before despite her being a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, winning the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism for her work as chief book critic at the Boston Globe. She writes beautifully, I'd be interesting in reading more of her work.

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