Candia McWilliam is hard on herself. Convinced as a child of her ugliness and unwantedness, she is no kinder in adulthood, describing herself in her memoir “as a disaster in a room, as though someone has let in a maimed domestic animal and half killed it, for its own respite”.
What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness (2010) is a fluidly structured account of her upbringing in Edinburgh with her father, a cool, cultivated historian of architecture, and her clever, fragile mother, who committed suicide aged thirty-six. It is also an account of “what it is to be alive, to feel, and to think” both before and after her blepharospasm, a condition that caused her eyelids to contract so much they clamped shut and made her “functionally blind”.
McWilliam, author of three novels and a book of short stories, noticed there was something wrong with her eyes while a judge for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, a job involving an exorbitant amount of reading even for someone who had previously sought refuge in books. The nasty irony is not lost on her. She carries on trying to read and type, holding her lids open as her eyes “fight back and weep to be shut down and left in peace”. Though she claims to be instinctively unsuited to memoir, preferring to transpose life into fiction, she also realises that blindness has left her incapable of perceiving “the edges of things and the insides of things”, and thus unable to write novels. Coerced into introspection, she takes up memoir when she finds she has learned things that can be cast into “something useful or reminiscent or nourishing”.
Interspersing memoir with present-day accounts of living without sight, McWilliam describes studying English at Cambridge, her short-lived job at Vogue, which she got after winning the magazine’s talent competition while still at school, her two marriages, her three children, and her debilitating alcoholism. She has talent, privilege, and glamorous connections (including a Rothschild son with the use of his parents’ house on Barbados), yet she is often full of self-loathing, and so vicious about her looks that she recalls working at Vogue feeling like “a trapped bookish fatty”. She is also ruthless about the physical and emotional results of alcoholism. She drinks disinfectant and vomits blood. At her lowest point, she leaves her second husband, the academic Fram Dinshaw, without whom she will later feel “homeless”. In remembering how she discovered her mother lying dead, she finds a grotesque mirror-image in the fact that her own children have seen her in the same position, passed out from drink.
Conversely, she is sympathetic to the flaws of almost everyone else, dwelling on the compassion of friends, family (both biological and adopted), and partners (in various stages of current, former and in-between). She is even understanding towards the woman who calls her a “fucking bitch” when McWilliam, at this stage visually impaired, bumps into her. Barbs are directed only towards the intellectually lazy—in response to a radio host referring to a “jingoistic soundbite” by the Roman poet Horace, McWilliam writes that such “bracing illiteracy” prevents her from curling up and dying.
Yet for all its sadness, the book is equally a lucid, joyful account of the addictive pleasure to be found in reading and writing—tellingly, she never gets over her childhood habit of rushing at the sound of footsteps “to hide one’s book, and ‘look busy’”, for the sake of her activity-orientated stepmother. She is a natural narrator, delivering scene-setters like “[my grandmother] had been alone from the night when her husband, my grandfather, tried to murder us both”. She is also darkly funny. Relating the events following her mother’s death, she adds that she was thrown out of Edinburgh zoo for trying to catch a chipmunk.
What to Look for in Winter is only partly about blindness, and leaves open, as the title suggests, the possibility of sight even in the dead of a metaphorical winter—not least because she eventually undergoes surgery that holds her condition at bay and partly restores her vision. Except for the occasional jarring turn of phrase (“My father as a boy I met in the autobiography of Frederic Raphael”), McWilliam’s prose burns with lyrical, hard-won truth, fuelled by her desire to write, and in writing, to pass on “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”. She continues to write, even when “unpersoned” by blindness, because, as she puts it, she isn’t dead yet, and there is still something to pass on.
Jenny Messenger is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. Her research interests include classical reception, the history of classical scholarship, and philosophy and religion in late antiquity. She has previously experienced a different end of the journalistic spectrum while working as a reporter for an insurance trade magazine.