Blue Night Joan Didion

Fourth Estate, pp.188, 14.99

This is a raw, untidy, ragged book. Well, grief is all of those things. On the other hand, Didion wrote about the death of her husband in an iconic memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, which apart from being raw was none of them. So she knows how it can be done.  That book was about the horribly sudden death of her husband, about shock and pain and then the confusion of bereavement and loss. But it was also a vivid portrait of the man himself.

‘One never knows when the blow may fall’, yet people have been surprisingly surprised that it fell again so quickly on Didion, when her adopted daughter Quintana, also died, a year later. But blows rain down relentlessly, not to say unfairly, on some individuals. Such as Job. Such as my blithely happy friend who then lost her teenage middle son, husband, and teenage younger son all very suddenly, within two years. It happens. That death is no respecter of persons should be obvious, but isn’t always.

If we were given a memoir not only of the death of Didion’s husband but of his life, his personality in The Year of Magical Thinking, we are not really given one of Quintana Roo — named after a place they found on a map — who remains a curiously unformed and shadowy figure throughout. Was this intentional? Did Didion realise that this is how her book would be? Why is it a portrait not of Quintana at all but of Didion herself, of her grief, and also of her accompanying terror of old age?

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I ask these questions because her book is full of questions, almost composed of them. She cannot make any sense of death and grief and old age, or relate them to life and the past, so she asks endless unanswerable questions. But she could have given us a memoir only of Quintana, her personality, her life, her death, and in doing so made some sense of it all. Quintana was real, was a whole and entire baby, child, young woman, had thoughts and attitudes and feelings, did things, achieved things. Yet she is always shadowy, Didion is always in the forefront, almost pushing her daughter aside. Was this intentional? If not, how could she have let it happen? If so, how could she ditto?

Once they are dead, beloved people become exceptional and untouchable and not only must we never speak ill of them, we must realise that there is no ill to speak. Dead sons and daughters immediately become the most beautiful, original, talented, clever, funny, wise, special children. Quintana was the most beautiful baby and a child full of profound ideas and sayings. Some would say that she was the typical only child who spent too much time in the company of unusual adults. With her film-maker parents she went the rounds of five-star hotels, studios and agents’ offices. She said pert, clever, unusual things. She was a bit like Alice in Wonderland. Or was she? We can’t really tell.

She had a melancholy, perhaps a depressive streak, which Didion stresses so often that we are sure that what she is leading up to is the account of Quintana’s inevitable suicide, so that I was taken aback to discover that she died of septicaemia after an entirely physical illness. Many children have dark thoughts about death, many children feel odd, most are anxious. Many adopted children search for their real parents. Quintana did, and found them, plus siblings. It was not a success. Is it ever?

She married, apparently happily, but her husband barely exists in the book except in name. I wanted to know more about him. But mainly I wanted Quintana to be brought alive in her mother’s words. That would have been her memorial. This disjointed, painful, author-centred book is not. Did Didion ever mean it to be? Was she always writing about herself, not about Quintana?

Well, what she wrote is what we have, and we must accept that. But it is legitimate to criticise the section which deals with the tragic death of Natasha Richardson, actress and old childhood friend of Quintana — the whole intricate family were close for many years. She says that Natasha’s brain haemorrhage after a fall in a ski resort ‘was never meant to happen’. The answer to that would be, for some, ‘How do we know?’ for others, ‘Of course it wasn’t.’ But whatever the solution to that eternal enigma, the account of Natasha’s death in this book, which is meant to be about Quintana, jars, and seems to have no place, though it had a place for Didion. That’s the problem, somehow.

Quintana’s death has not been changed ‘into something rich and strange’, and perhaps this book would have been better for Didion’s waiting for the sea-change before writing it. Did she fear that in that case she never would?
Who am I to say?

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Death, Memoir, Non-fiction