Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

Didion's powerful book on grief, injected with remarkable brevity, in which she guides readers through her experience with a striking sense of calm.

Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

December 2023 • Non-fiction

This month I read this book by Joan Didion for the third time. I found myself sat at a bar while on vacation, with this book in my pocket, and I read it cover-to-cover before I got up and left. It is a captivating read: a meditation on grief unlike anything I've ever read.

Didion wrote this book after her husband of forty years, John Gregory Dunne, with whom she frequently collaborated, suddenly passed away from a heart attack on December 30th of 2003. She recounts that evening and covers the year that follows in its wake, as well as the life they had together (and that of their daughter, Quintana, who was very ill and in hospital at the time of Dunne's death—an event weaved into the story, too).

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

I will say that the book did not bring me down. Grief, and especially your own, is not an easy subject to write about (nor is it easy to read about), but Didion manages to inject the book with remarkable brevity—she takes her reader by the hand, like a dependable confidant, and guides them through her experience of her grief with a striking sense of calm.

She expertly—or surgically, even—uses language: timing her words and sentences, embracing humour, and employing repetition to make the words leap off its pages. Her craft is unparalleled, and with her style of writing she lets her readers peek down into the valleys of her grief in breathtaking ways.

If you've experienced grief, this book will make you nod with appreciation, laugh a little at Didion's witty remarks, and perhaps tear up at moments of recognition.

“In time of trouble I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control. Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare.”

As Didion found, literature on grief, at the time, was not satisfactory. With this book, I dare say she wrote the most powerful and unforgettable book on grief every written.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Published by Fourth Estate in 2005

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