Candia McWilliam has an eye for the contradictions at the heart of things, from the burning heat of an ice tray to the superstitions we cherish but never keep. Her memoir, What to Look for in Winter, is in part an exploration, by turns heart-wrenching, ironic and celebratory, of these contradictions. It is a tale of extremes (McWilliam may be unique in having both judged the Man Booker Prize and modelled Levi jeans), where what could perhaps be pure happiness unfolds into addiction and remorse.
The spur for the memoir came when, aged fifty, the author of A Case of Knives and Debatable Lands developed a rare form of “functional blindness”, a particularly harsh fate for someone whose life and work had until that point revolved around the written word. Recognising that the physical and the psychological are never entirely distinct, McWilliam takes her disorder as a prompt to probe into her past, from her uneasy childhood to her two marriages torn apart by the descent into alcoholism. The memoir, partly dictated, partly painstakingly typed, is a harrowing read, haunted by the isolation brought on by blindness as well as the author’s continuing love for Fram, the second husband she so badly hurt. The book is saved from being unbearably sad, though, by the author’s ability to flip the mood of a sentence from dark to light, and her attempt to take blindness “as the adventure it is, generously, as though it were a gift.”
Born to Scots-Irish parents in Edinburgh, McWilliam paints her early childhood as an “Eden” which was never quite unthreatened. Books bred with books in their house in the city’s Canonmills, and make-believe horses jostled for room with aristocratically named cats. Her mother had “a gift for making rooms and occasions with nothing more than, say, sweet peas, a matchbox and herself.” Life was punctuated by trips to the crumbling but grand houses of Scotland’s past with her father, the ?architectural author Colin McWilliam. Yet while both parents were clearly charismatic, they were also fragile in ways of which their young daughter was painfully aware. Eden was threatened by their fights, physical and verbal, and their betrayals, long before it shattered when the 8-year-old’s mother killed herself.
Her father soon re-married, and McWilliam’s vocation as a self-condemned ugly duckling began. The author is remarkable for her generosity of spirit when describing anyone other than herself. Presented with a step-mother just six months after her mother’s suicide, McWilliam imagines her younger self as an “almost feral” child, a liar, physically inert, the only obstacle to the new couple’s happiness. That she might have had reason to be so, given what she had been through, is hardly admitted, and barely a criticism of the stepmother’s “thorough regime change” passes her lips, not when the mother’s beloved cats are destroyed, nor when the young Candia “started to dread going home after school because I know that I would in my absence have fallen short.” The depiction of anxiety is painful, and the conviction that her presence is tolerated rather than enjoyed is to recur throughout her life.
It is a conviction that the reader cannot share – and not only because of McWilliam’s warm, wry wit (who can hold back a laugh when she gives up “cooking as too extreme a sport”?). The book takes its life from the author’s remarkable descriptions – of places, but particularly of people: the Hebridean family who she adopts as her own as a teenage school girl and whose home is a haven throughout her life; the glamorous Tamsin Day Lewis or her schoolmate Rosa Beddington, “her character silver threaded with steel”; or Fram’s new partner, whom she comes to cherish as a friend. No one as uninteresting and self-pitying as McWilliam believes herself to be could have made and kept the compassionate, creative friends she so lovingly depicts.
Since losing her sight and having had to replace books with audiobooks McWilliam notes missing that jolt of delight when reading for “the texture of the text”:
“There have been many moments when I clumsily tried to stop the machine there – just there – and catch the words again, in order to make, as I’m afraid I would have done before, a note in the margin, or on a bit of paper.”
The tragic irony is that What to Look for in Winter is full of these moments, the margins of the book filling themselves with asterisks and exclamation marks. Almost every page contains a sentence which the reader pauses to reread, to underline, to text to a friend. This can come from McWilliam’s gently mocking, persistent humour, or from her ability to invert a phrase to lend to an idea its proper weightiness, telling us for instance that “Scotland it was that saved me.” Far from joining the ranks of the “accounts of profitable suffering; no, profitable accounts of suffering” McWilliam shrinks from, her memoir leaves the reader hoping that this self-confessed “insufficiently prolific” novelist will, as she suggests towards the end of the book, find her way back to writing more. She tells us she wants to “pass it on, to pass the shiver that comes when we read and know for a time what it is to live, think, feel and be inside the mind of another.” Certainly, in this book, she succeeds.
Annie Rutherford has written criticism and comment pieces in English and German for a range of publications including The Skinny, and Cafebabel, an online European magazine. She is now a full-time freelancer, working principally as Programme Co-ordinator at StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival, combined with regular editorial and translation work.