Small Acts of Disappearance
If you are wary of “sick lit”, you will like Fiona Wright, a Sydney-based poet whose first book of essays offers anything but the usual anorexia narrative – the type, she writes, that “can’t seem to hold together the complexities of recovery”. Small Acts of Disappearance is more meditation than memoir: coolly observant, surprising in scope, and so fluidly ordered that its essays feel chronological even when they’re not. It’s a mark of Wright’s assurance that she reserves her critique of the pitfalls of her genre until the final chapter; from the first, it’s impossible to mistake this for an easy book.
Its premise is that illness can’t be sealed off from the world, and so Wright’s story is blended with long, measured approaches to, for instance, the concept of the miniature itself: both the anorexic body and the Victorian doll’s house exhibit the “profound and unsettling power” of the small. And if sections that analyse hunger in writing by the likes of John Berryman and Christina Stead fit less neatly than the rest, I was still grateful for the author’s willingness to roam. There are worse things than idiosyncrasy.
Wright is best when animating an emotional state that is difficult for the well to understand. “Hunger is addictive,” she explains, “and it is intensely sensual, pulling the body between extremes of hyper-alertness and a foggy trance-like dream state.” This constant anxiety is the book’s surprising emotional core: you get why the author’s driven to it, and why she must escape.
The essays draw on a wide range of well-selected details. We learn that “the stomach contains more nerves than the spinal cord, that it can feel and agitate with all the emotions that we usually ascribe to the heart, that it’s the first part of the body affected by emotional distress, or stress, or trauma”. Wright quickly dismisses this, knowing that her stomach’s “misfiring nerves and muscles … mean as little metaphysically as a broken bone or virus”. But it’s smart that she allows you to feel the metaphoric potential first; techniques like these let the reader have it both ways.
It’s easy to see how bad memoirs about illness happen. When you spend a long time looking closely at a wound, it’s easy to be sentimental, difficult to keep the wound in view. But in its mixture of rawness and insight, Small Acts of Disappearance is a rare thing: a critical inquiry with a heartbeat. CR
Giramondo, 224pp, $24.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2015 as "Fiona Wright, Small Acts of Disappearance". Subscribe here.