Bleaker House – Nell Stevens

You’ve heard, I’m sure, of the distinction between “street smarts” and “book smarts”, which presupposes that someone who reads a lot or is good at math or whatever has absolutely zero common sense. Aside from the fact that it all depends on what books you’re reading – and sidestepping a lengthy side discussion about why a certain brand of heartland Republicans seem to think education is bad … this book kind of exemplifies this. Nell Stevens is obviously very book smart – but the fact that she actually survived this project she describes surprises me deeply.

Now, I’ve often thought that if I could only have a substantial chunk of time to myself, with no mundane work-sleep schedule to adhere to (meaning enough money to live for a few weeks or months or whatever without working), I could absolutely finish my book. (The times I’ve been unemployed don’t count, because between the time needed for job-hunting and the substantial stress of being unemployed undid the benefits of having free time.) (That’s my story, anyway.) It worked for another Nell, after all – Nelle Harper Lee, that is; her friends gave her an amazing gift of time, and I think it could be said she used it well. So it’s not completely ridiculous that Nell Stevens decided that what she needed in order to write her novel was three months, completely alone, on an island in the Falklands, about as close as you can get to absolutely zero distractions.

Except it is completely ridiculous.

She plans it out meticulously. She can only bring so much baggage with her, so she organizes reading matter, clothing – and food, because this island she is going to is uninhabited for most of the year – like the time of year she will be going (winter, inexplicably) – and the only food she will have is what she brings with her. And here’s where her lack of “street smarts” becomes dismayingly obvious. “It works out that I will eat 1,085 calories per day”, she says.

Per, it’s recommended that a woman aged 19-30 take in 2000 calories if sedentary, 2000-2200 if moderately active, and 2400 if active. And Ms. Stevens is very active during her time on this island, walking what must be miles per day. I didn’t make note of how much weight she discovered she had lost when she got home after the adventure – I mean, on Survivor they tend to lose about 10% of their starting weight, and that’s only 40 days, with some of those days being much more sedentary than others – but after only a few days even she recognizes that starvation does not lead to clear thought, and when higher brain functions are impaired it’s hard to write a novel.

So it’s not surprising that at the end of the quarter she does not have a novel completed. What she ends up with is Bleaker House, a sort of memoir/travelogue/picaresque story of her isolation and hunger, and how she handled it. And seagulls. All this is intercut with sketches from the novel-that-never-was, which seem to be well-written and have some life to them … but I can see how it died on the vine.

In the Goodreads summary words like “clever” and “deft humour” and “whimsical” are used to describe the book. Maybe I was in a bad mood when I read it, but I didn’t think the story of an extremely unwise and ultimately unproductive trip (though it resulted in this memoir, it did not inspire the author to produce 2,500 words of a novel per day) which … I’m sorry, it was almost criminally stupid. Whimsical is only a good thing if it doesn’t almost kill you.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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