Book reviews, Non-fiction, Writing

Bleaker House by Nell Stevens

Bleaker House charts Nell Stevens’ three-month stint on the Falkland Islands trying to find her inspiration. It’s a beautiful tale of loneliness, fulfilment and creativity.

Bleaker House by Nell Stevens

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

When Nell Stevens was given the opportunity to spend three months in a location of her choice in order to write her novel, she was determined to rid herself of all distractions. So Nell decided to travel to Bleaker Island (official population: two) in the Falklands where she would write 2,500 words a day.

But Bleaker House is not that novel. Instead this is a book about a young woman realising that the way to writing fiction doesn’t necessarily lie in total solitude and a clear plan. Nor does it lie in a daily ration of 1085 calories, no means of contacting the outside world and a slow descent towards something that feels worryingly like madness . . .

What’s good about it?

If you are a writer or have ever held a dream of being one, this book is for you. Stevens’ portrayal of trying to find a plot and write it down is sublime; a painfully honest and piercingly funny account of the strange vocation that is authordom.

The scene in which Nell explains why she wants to envelope herself in such extreme isolation is beautifully poignant:

I am scared that the life I want to lead, the life of a writer, is inevitably built on loneliness, and I need to know if I can hack it.

If I can teach myself the art of loneliness, then perhaps the art of writing will come more easily to me.

Nell’s astute observations are not focused only on writing: Bleaker House offers insightful reflections of the millennial condition, too. In a similar tone to Lisa Owen’s wonderful Not WorkingNell taps into the sense of dread of trying to fulfil a potential you’re not sure you have and do a job that, in reality, you know very little about. She perfectly captures the FOMO mindset of our generation: being without WiFi surely means you’re missing out on the profundity of life when, in fact, you’ve only missed a couple of giphys and pics of your mates’ tea.

The book is peppered with the sage advice of published authors, designed to make Nell focus on her goal and aesthetic aspirations. It does nothing but increase the writer’s block and reiterate the strange predicament she has created for herself.

Bleaker House was filled with soundbites that captured my life. When Nell described how she used the sentence “happy to be doing something significant and adult” to answer prying questions about her life and career, I remembered doing the same thing to mask that I was unhappily working for a megalomaniac and eating beans on toast five nights a week after buying my first flat at 25. When Nell wrote “I am a jumble of aspirations and overlapping motivations” I screamed for her to get out of my head. How could she know this?

The book features the fictional works Nell tries to write on the island, and the accompanying analysis of the quality of the prose will amuse and comfort writers in the same boat. So will the story about “doing your words” – a daily quota of 2,500 that the islanders quiz Nell about on every meeting.

Bleaker House’s strength is its striking narrative voice. I know Nell. I’m friends with Nell. Hell, I am Nell. You’re on Nell’s side and in her shoes from the first page and you’ll stay with her until the end.

I could wax lyrical about Bleaker House all day. Nell Stevens is an astute, funny, humble and honest writer and this book will just make you smile.

What’s not so good about it?

I have no constructive criticism of this book whatsoever. I loved every morsel and will be first in the queue when Nell’s next work is released.

Bleaker House is out now in hardback from Picador.

Feature pic credit: Vogue

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