Archives for category: Solitude


If, like me, you thought John William’s Stoner [] was one of the best books you have ever read, check out Train Dreams. It is a very different read, at a mere 116 pages, but Stoner was much in my mind while experiencing Train Dreams. It may well be the fact that both follow the life of one man, an alone and ultimately tragic (or so it seems to me) figure. It is also not luck that brought Train Dreams to my attention. The same person who gifted me Stoner recommended Denis Johnson’s work. Such is the magic of the reading experience. It connects people and events and episodes in ways that might not otherwise be possible.

I am not sure how much I liked the central character in both books (Howard Jacobson would probably say that the need to like characters misses the whole point of writing and reading), yet this did not stop me connecting with each and both, and with their stories of living and suffering.

Train Dreams opens with the ending of a stranger’s life:

‘In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.’

It ends:

‘And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.’

The intervening 100 pages or so follow Grainier’s adult life, which is dominated by loss, hardship and solitude. Yet Grainier is not a victim. He lives his life as he does and must, without questioning his suffering. He does, however, ultimately release and express and share what he has been holding within, in a way that is both surprising and beautiful.

Both Stoner and Train Dreams inevitably raises questions about what constitutes a life. Certainly, a life can be told in 100 pages, or 300, or whatever length. But what Williams and Johnson, exceptionally and in very different ways have done, is to share the essence of a lived life, the somethings that touch on and reach out to a humanness in us all.






Susan Hill’s novel, written in 1974, is a story about loss, relationships, and about how we mourn.

The acute loss central to the story results from the sudden death of Ruth’s young husband Ben. However, a more global pre-existing loss is also unmasked by the tragedy.

Ruth is devastated by Ben’s death, and inhabits a place of unremitting despair where she is untouchable by others. Reluctantly, she attends the funeral, where she resents the mourning of others:

‘She imagined the line of dark mourners mounting the stairs and peering into the coffin. As Ben. Ben. How could they? How could so many people have touched him and looked at him, unasked, since the moment of his death, when she herself had not?

But it was better. She thought, they don’t have Ben.’

‘They were forcing her to take part in some curious ritual of their own…’

My sister’s husband died a few years ago, and I can see her response to his death, and to fellow-mourners, in Ruth’s behaviour. At the time, I struggled with my sister’s reaction, as I tried to deal with both his loss from our lives and also her belief that only she was entitled to mourn this loss.

Ruth, with time, comes to realise the wide-reaching effects of Ben’s death:

‘The death of Ben Bryce had been like a stone cast into still water, and the water had become a whirlpool with Ruth sucked down into the terrible heart of it. But the waves spread out, through the countryside down to the village and beyond the village. People felt changed, as if by war or earthquake or fire, even those who lived closest to death and knew its face.’

She comes to acknowledge her behaviour at the time:

‘But she had been too wrapped up, first within the warm womb of her happiness with Ben, and then in the cold shell of grief. She had not thought of anyone.’

We read to find ourselves, and to witness experiences that resonate with our own. Thus, within In the Springtime of the Year, I found some consolation in its echoes of my sister’s reaction to her husband’s death:

‘…she had kept Ben’s death to herself, as a private thing, tried to possess it utterly and allow no one else the right to mourn…’


An article in today’s Guardian got me thinking about loneliness ( The journalist, Aditya Chakrabortty, rightly criticises the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s assertion that loneliness only afflicts the elderly.
Chakrabortty supports his point by referring to the 2011 film Dreams of a Life, which is a drama documentary of a 38 year woman who died alone in London, and whose death was undiscovered for three years. No one reported her missing, and no one looked for her during those three years.
I live in the same city, and deliberately opted for its anonymity many years ago, having left a homeland where everyone appeared to know everything about everyone else…

I saw Dreams of a Life twice when it was first released. I was overwhelmed by the pathos of the story, and I suspect I went to see it a second time to reassure myself that I had missed some sort of explanation first time round. Of course I hadn’t. This story cannot be explained away.

Dreams of a Life tells the story of Joyce Vincent, who died in her flat in Wood Green towards the end of 2003. We assume that she died around Christmas as she was found, almost three years later, surrounded by wrapped presents.
Her body, which had ‘melted into the carpet’, was discovered in January 2006, and was too badly decomposed to determine the cause of death. She was discovered because bailiffs broke down the front door as she was over £2000 in arrears with her rent. The TV was still on.
No one appears to have missed her. No one reported the smell coming from her flat or the TV blaring non-stop since her death. Joyce Vincent had somehow slipped through our lives.

A shockingly disturbing, almost unbelievable, but true, story.

A captivating and compassionate docudrama by the director Carol Morley, who did not apparently set out to answer the question of how someone ‘disappears’. Yet Morley does attempt to piece together Joyce’s life to some extent, although clearly there are blind alleys and no-go zones, depicted by post-it notes that crop up throughout on an investigator type screen. There is a strong feeling of trying to make sense of Joyce’s death by piecing together her life.
The film is seductively crafted, vignettes of re-enactments of Joyce as a child and as an adult (mostly silent) against a backdrop of interviews with friends and colleagues and journalists who reported the story initially. Morley interviews friends and colleagues of Joyce, some of whom she tracked down through personal ads and social network sites, people who were close to her at different points in her life. They all need to explain her death, or rather the apparent insignificance of her departure from their lives. The triumph of the film is that it makes Joyce’s death a story. It retraces a path from her death, backwards, to explain a life.

In the end, there is no clear explanation as to why Joyce was forgotten by so many people. She was beautiful and popular. Yes, there were times spent in women refuge centres, suggestions of violent boyfriends, and of abuse. But nothing that explains away the fact that she disappeared and that no one missed her presence in their lives.

In his article, Chakrabortty states that Britain has witnessed a rise in people living alone, from 17% in 1971 to 31% today. This increase is occurring not in the elderly, but in those of working age. A doubling of the divorce rate since the 1960s probably contributes to the observed increase.

And loneliness is bad for your health: ‘excessive loneliness pushes up your odds of an early death by 45%.’

Much to consider…

For now, from Maya Angelou’s Alone:

‘Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.’



I Could Read The Sky, written by Timothy O’Grady with photographs by Steve Pyke, first appeared in 1997.

The photographic novel was later adapted by Nichola Bruce to create a film of the same name (1999). I recently received a gift of Iarla O’Lionaird’s haunting accompanying soundtrack, which also features Sinead O’Connor, Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Noel Hill and Liam O’Maonlai. The music inspired me to re-explore both the book and the film.

A deeply melancholic and tragic narrative, I Could Read The Sky has loss, poverty, isolation and loneliness at its core.

It tells the story of one man, as he looks back on his life from solitary old age in Kentish Town. We get flashbacks of growing up in Ireland and of his life after leaving his native land to find work in England. The book unfolds as memories, as a looking back, to what has constituted a life.

The tone of the book is set at the outset, with a poem by Peter Woods on exile:

‘Exile is not a word

It is a sound

The rending of skin

A fistful of clay on top

of a coffin.’

We first see the lone figure in a Kentish Town bedsit:

‘This is me. I have a round bald head. My eyes are blue and watery and my fingers are stained with tobacco. I am alone here with a black dog. I sleep badly.’

His life in England has variously included working in a beet factory in Ipswich, slab laying in Bedford, and working with drainage pipes in Coventry, before settling in London amongst his compatriots:

‘There are men on the Kilburn High Road you can only see unfinished buildings in their eyes.’

He shares his flashbacks and memories, ‘sounds and pictures but they flit and crash before I can get them’, images of long-left Ireland and Labasheeda (‘The day of the Stations is a big day’) interspersed with the reality of his today:

‘I open my eyes in Kentish Town. Always this neutral air.’

‘A chair beside the bed. Tablets. A shirt with little blue squares, the collar shot. A bottle of Guinness here and another on the ledge. Maggie’s rosary, crystal beads.’

‘A wardrobe made my people I’ve never met.’

We return again and again to the Kentish Town bedsit:

‘I roll onto my side. The wardrobe door is open, Maggie’s dress with the bluebell’s hanging there.’

Maggie was the love of his life, and her death its greatest tragedy. The story of how they met, and what she meant to him, is a most beautiful and moving thread that weaves through the narrative.

‘I’ll not be leaving Kentish Town now except in a brown box and when I do I’ll be going to Labasheeda to lie with Maggie. I’ve left the instructions.’

His grief is almost tangible:

‘What is it to miss someone? It is not the throbbing ache of a wound. It is not the pain you get under your ribs from running. It is not a befouled feeling, the feeling of being in mud. It is the feeling of being in a strange place and losing direction. It is the feeling of looking without seeing and eating without tasting. It is forgetfulness, the inability to move, the inability to connect. It is a sentence you must serve and if the person you miss is dead your sentence is long.’

As fragments of his past and present life come and go, he pieces together a list of sorts:

‘What I could do.

I could mend nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs…I could dance sets. Read the sky…Make a field…I could read the sea…Shear sheep. Remember poems. Set potatoes…Read the wind…Make a coffin. Take a drink. I could frighten you with stories.’

‘What I couldn’t do.

Eat a meal lacking potatoes. Trust banks. Wear a watch…Drink coffee…Follow cricket. Understand the speech of a man from west Kerry…Speak with men wearing collars. Stay afloat in water. Understand their jokes. Face the dentist. Kill a Sunday. Stop remembering.’

It makes you think about what we are, what constitutes our lives, lists of dos and don’ts, the memories we hang onto and those we forget, the people of our lives…

Watching the film again after re-reading the book, I love the collage of images, music and voices that interplay on the screen. How fragmented and bitty our lives in reality are, and the challenge is to try and pull it all together and somehow create a meaningful whole…

‘I remember loneliness and the walls of Quex Road. I remember pure sadness.’



This debut novel by the Norwegian author Kjersti A. Skomsvold was my second read on the IMPAC Dublin literary award shortlist.

An intriguing and intense book, I liked it when I read it, and it has lingered much in my thoughts ever since.

The central character is Mathea Martinsen, an elderly widow who lives alone, leading a solitary and almost agoraphobic life, “I Mathea am alone”. The details of her life are subtlely revealed, interspersed with Mathea’s own musings:

‘I never got the point of flowers, they’re just going to wither and die.’

‘I like it when I can be done with something. Like a knitted earwarmer, like winter, spring, summer, fall.’

We know that Mathea has been married to Epsilon, and that they did not have children, a loss that is not dwelt on but more obliquely alluded to:

‘I identify with bananas, for not only am I hunched over, I’ve also got a flower without sex organs and fruit without seed, and therefore I am, according to the Buddha, meaningless.’

Now widowed, childless and alone, Mathea spends much time considering her own approaching death:

‘It may take a long time before anyone realizes I’ve died.’

However, her thoughts are neither maudlin nor self-pitying as she considers, in a sometimes peculiarly detached way, her last moments:

‘It’s getting dark, I’m trying to concentrate on something useful, and the only thing that matters now is to figure out what my last words will be.’

Obituaries preoccupy, and distract:

‘LIVE LIFE. Seize the day. I’m standing next to my bed, but I don’t know how to seize my day. Finally, I decide to do what I always do: read the obituaries.’

Yet she is also philosophical, and knowing, about her own life and its inherent solitude:

‘”MATHEA MARTINSEN – deeply loved, dearly missed,” I write at the top of the page and underline it.’

‘Today I’m glad my name isn’t there. Still, an obituary would be proof of my existence…’

‘I used to read obituaries to gloat over all the people I’d outlived, but now I don’t think it matters, we all live for just a moment anyway.’

She is not afraid to consider death, and does so with much pragmatism and wry humour:

‘I need to expose myself more and more to death – without going too far, it’s a delicate balance – but then at last I’ll be able to live with the fact that I’m going to die. I figure this can be done in two ways and so I draw up a list.

1. I can visit graveyards, go to funerals, or I can plan my own funeral…

…It must be terrible to plan your own funeral. It’s probably easier to plan other people’s.

2. I can begin living dangerously. I can cross the street without first looking left, then right, then left again.’

But part of her obsession with dying also connects to her struggle with living, and her solitary existence:

‘I’m still sitting here in my apartment and I’m just as afraid of living life as I am of dying.’

Mathea appears profoundly lonely, despite her fear of others, a loneliness that she has experienced all her life:

‘Now I hear ambulance sirens in the distance again, they should be coming to get me because I’m wearing clean underwear and will be dying soon. But no, there’s someone else in the ambulance instead…’

The tragic irony is that she does want to connect with others, but does not know how:

‘I usually buy what other people buy, it’s nice to have boiled cod for dinner if the woman in front of me at the checkout is also having boiled cod.’

‘I let myself imagine that someone might notice me on the way to the store. But what would I do if that happened, probably nothing, and whoever it is might be disappointed by what they see. I’ve never heard of anyone being impressed by nothing at all, and I don’t like to disappoint people.’

‘You’re only fooling yourself if you think you can’t be lonely just because you’re busy, but the most important thing is that no one else thinks you’re lonely.’

Ultimately defeated, Mathea arrives at her own denouement:

‘I’m not afraid of dying anymore, I’m just afraid of dying alone, and I’ve already done that.’

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am addresses very significant themes, around what it means to be human and to have lived, such as solitude, loneliness, the inevitability of death, the need to belong, to be visible and noticed, and to matter.

Big stuff, which lingers and makes you think…