Chasing a Novel at the End of the World

“That’s the thing about being a writer … Every bad experience you have is good material.”


Nell Stevens was just like every other twenty-something at the tail end of her education. Or, at least like every other twenty-something with a degree from Warwick, another degree from Harvard, and an MFA from Boston University. It was time to finally put all of that work, time, and money to actual, productive use. For Nell, that meant writing a novel. But there were two things standing in her way: one, she didn’t know what she was going to write about, and two, she was far too distracted to commit to anything.

But then came the perfect opportunity. She won a fellowship that would send her anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, for three months. There, she could find her inspiration and finish the novel she always felt destined to write. Her peers had chosen France for its tranquility and sense of history, New York for its vibrancy and clash of cultures. Nell chose Bleaker Island, a barren, uninhabited scrap of land in the Falklands, hundreds of miles off the southern tip of Argentina.

In her grant proposal, Nell quoted Jorge Luis Borges, who declared the 1982 Falklands War as “two bald men fighting over a comb.” She proposed, perhaps too whimsically, to spend three months in almost complete isolation–during the off-season winter months, no less–to learn “all the reasons he might have been incorrect.” By virtue of her inexhaustible charm, she was given the green light to go.

Her goal wasn’t to explore Borges or the Falklands War at all, though. It was to write fiction. With the landscape as her muse and nothing but the time to write it, Nell thought her novel would flow from her like a raft of penguins out of the Falklands waters.

She was heartbreakingly wrong.

What she got instead was Bleaker House, a memoir of a failed attempt at writing a novel. Which, I attest, ended up being the more interesting result. As Nell put it, “I feel as though I have pulled a rabbit from a hat I was about to put on.”

Bleaker House is something of a literary goulash. It contains journal entries from Bleaker Island, pieces of the novel she was writing, short stories she wrote prior to going, and the memoir that ties it all together. It owes as much to Charles Dickens as it does Eat, Pray, Love. Ultimately, it’s a fascinating look into not only a writer’s process, but the process of someone becoming a writer.

I have begun to occupy a comparative world: I am colder, hungrier, more isolated. There is an unspoken final clause: than ever before.

As someone who’s had an abundance of education–albeit, nothing approaching Nell’s–as well as dreams of one day writing a novel, I couldn’t have been more engaged by Bleaker House. I often found myself in Nell’s narrator, Ollie, whose journey mirrored her own. “The world he occupies is the dusty, hushed Bodleian Library, the loneliness of research, the intimacy of knowing great literature very well, the frustration of knowing little else.”

It’s at turns funny, insightful, uplifting, disheartening, educational, and an absolute joy to read. As Kate Christensen blurbs on the back of the book, “Nell Stevens is an excellent writer, as well as great company.”

With memoirs, that’s half the battle, isn’t it? If we’re to go on a journey with a person, they better be great company. If not, the journey likely isn’t worth the effort. With Bleaker House, it absolutely is.

9 Comments

  1. So glad you loved this! I added it to my ‘to-read’ list the second I saw that it was getting published, but a coworker of mine got his hands on it early and wasn’t a fan. I typically agree with him, so I’ve put it off. But obviously you can never trust just one person’s opinion, so I’m so happy to see you loved it and must bump it back up the list!

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    1. I actually think it’s the type of book that requires you to be in the right headspace for it. I would never tell someone to read it randomly. If you’re ever intrigued by the concept, give it a go. But if you’re unsure about it, don’t be afraid to pass it up. I definitely enjoyed myself though. It’s a breezy read, too.

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