The Museum of Words
“A memoir of dying is exceptionally wrenching,” wrote the novelist Tom Rachman in 2016, “because we know the end at the beginning, and so meet with an effortful, pulsing person who will soon be neither.” In the pages of The Museum of Words, we meet with Georgia Blain, the novelist and memoirist, and we also meet with the women closest to her: her mother, the broadcaster Anne Deveson, and her close friend, writer Rosie Scott. These three effortful, pulsing women died within months of each other: Scott, of a brain tumour in the language centre of her brain, like Blain, and Deveson, of Alzheimer’s disease.
There is bitter irony in a gifted writer such as Blain losing her affinity with words yet driven, in her final months, to communicate with readers and leave some kind of record for her family and friends. It cannot be avoided: this book lacks her usual soaring, poetic sentences and taut structure, seen most recently in her wonderful prize-winning novel Between a Wolf and a Dog (in which a major character is dying of a brain tumour, written well before Blain’s own diagnosis). There is no poetry in The Museum of Words – or, at least, it’s not in the language. The sentences are simplistic and the thoughts are wandering. She’s struggling on the page, it’s palpable.
That is, however, as it should be. The dying she’s describing is not fictional, and it’s not poetic. It’s exhausting and confusing and frightening, and her partner, Andrew, and her editors are to be commended for allowing this integrity to stand. There is beauty here, though: in a series of exquisite photographs of Georgia, Anne, Rosie, and Georgia’s adored daughter, Odessa, as well as significant places in Georgia’s life, mostly taken by Andrew. They add immeasurably to the texture of the book; an ethereal contrast with Blain’s most difficult of journeys.
For an introduction to Blain the novelist, Between a Wolf and a Dog is a good place to start. The Museum of Words, in contrast, is the true story of Blain the woman: early 50s, loving and beloved and dealing with loss all around her, who understands both her art and her very life are slipping away. Perhaps in this rare case it’s forgivable for a review to give away the ending. In her final sentence, speaking of this memoir, Blain writes: “This miniature is my life in words, and I have been so grateful for every minute of it.” LS
Scribe, 176pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 2, 2017 as "Georgia Blain, The Museum of Words ". Subscribe here.