Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Small Acts of Disappearance:
Essays on Hunger
By Fiona Wright
ISBN: 9781922146939, 224pp, 1st September 2015
I have quite a few other books on the go at the moment, so when Small Acts of Disappearance arrived in my mailbox, I thought I’d just maybe read one essay to check it out before returning to my current book. I was travelling by train and this one was so neat and portable that I just grabbed it. That one essay had me well and truly hooked and I read the entirety of Small Acts of Disappearance on the trip there and back (after breakfast and before lunch). While it’s true to say that Wright’s book is a series of essays focused around the author’s eating disorder and the road she took from illness to wellness, it’s also a beautifully written series of tales about creativity, about the nature of mental and physical health, about being a woman, about travel, about love, about writing, about reading, and about self-awareness.
The book moves through a series of interlinked spaces—some internal and some external, though not all chronological. We follow Wright’s move to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, where Wright had gone to intern at an English language newspaper. There are essays about Berlin, where Wright was a foreign exchange student, and later revisited as a young writer. Other spaces include the online space of the internet, the disembodied space of a hospital, and the space that exists between the pages of books and in the nexus between author and reader. Each of these spaces is coloured and perceived through the author’s struggle with an eating disorder: her hunger, fear, and the underlying demons she had to confront. Though the danger is very real, and increases through the book (small acts leading always towards the unspoken large act – as Whitman put it, “Death,Death,Death,Death”), at no point does the work diminish in its shimmering, poetic beauty.
Every sentence of Small Acts of Disappearance is tightly constructed, and wrought with perception and intelligence. It feels as if Wright takes us inside the pain, the hunger, and the intensity of her experience as she moves through the phases of her disease and struggles with the recovery process. Although there is a personal and deeply honest narrative thread through each of the pieces, Wright is an academic, and always explores the broader, objective meaning and perspective of what she’s experiencing:
So too, perhaps, with our bodies: if they are small enough, or fraught enough to see or feel in their entirety, we can be sure that they exist and we can be certain of their borders – and by extension, we can know the selves that they carry with certainty. We’re no longer porous, no longer soluble, no longer undefined and contaminable; we are safe, at last. (63)
The second part of the book explores the relationship between literature and anorexia. Wright is a true reader, and the way in which she marries the experience of her suffering and healing to those characters and situations she reads about, and even the tactile quality of the books that accompanied her on her journey, is something that other like-minded readers will find familiar, though I have to confess here that I found nearly every aspect of this book familiar and not just because I too have suffered from an eating disorder, or that I’ve read and loved many of the books cited in this last section, but also because of the sensual and poetic way in which Wright illuminates her pain and redemption in the context of the work she reads, as if the books were inherent to the process of her life:
I read Dorothy Porter’s last collection, The Bee Hut, shot through with poems about hospitals and death, Emily Ballou’s Darwin Poems, about bodies, disfigurements and death, as I sat picking at the skin around my fingernails and avoiding the eyes of other patients. These were poems of longing and a strange, anticipatory loss, and they seemed to fit me in a way that so few of my clothes, at that time, did. (111-112)
The way in which Wright writes about some of the classics of literature—including Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird Café, and John Berryman’s Recovery is worth the price of the book alone. These are close and moving readings that provide depth and personal insight into the narrative framework, the themes that pivot around mental illness and hunger, and the characters that become Wright’s partners through her own recovery. It’s not a facile recovery though. The memory of hunger is almost as acute as the hunger itself—it was born out of this deep place and remains, even though we can, and must, find a way to live in health with it:
The body doesn’t forget. Perhaps my hunger will be carried with me always, together with the things that drive it – my tenacity, my determination, and my writing above all else. They’re dark within me, still, and I don’t know what to make of what persists (117)
Small Acts of Disappearance is so much more than a memoir, a book of essays, or an exploration of a mental illness. It is, above all, a beautifully written work of art that will speak powerfully to all readers.