Holed up on Bleaker Island learning how not to write a novel

When author Nell Stevens travels to a remote corner of the Falkland Islands to write a novel, she struggles for inspiration. Bleaker House is the result.

Nell Stevens

Anyone can write a book, right?

We all secretly, or not so secretly, feel  there’s one great novel inside us. The words are floating around somewhere, they just need to be caught and stapled to the page in the correct order. If only work was not so busy, the kids did not need so much attention or the mortgage did not exist. Life gets in the way. Surely solitude and isolation would create that clarity needed to capture what it was someone had inside their head.

But when Nell Stevens travels to a remote corner  of the Falkland Islands — the fully-funded climax to her Boston University writing course — she finds it is not so simple.

There are no excuses for mediocrity there. The loneliness and self-reflection forced on her by life on Bleaker Island (yes, that is its real name) weigh heavily. For long stints she is the only person on the island and rather than aid her pursuit, it brings added pressure.

While Stevens’ day-to-day existence is generally mundane, her descriptions of thought process are always poignant. Despite the island being seemingly a bare, grey lump, the author’s descriptions consistently give it life beyond the aesthetic.

Desperation slowly creeps in as she begins to question her writing; whether it would meet the approval of her tutor or even if she likes it herself. But ironically, of course, as she charts her inner turmoil she is indeed writing the novel that feels so far from her grasp.

In that sense the epiphany is somewhat predictable and slightly self-indulgent.

But Stevens gets away with it by peppering the experience with semi-short stories. It is like she’s opening a window to an alternate universe or into her past. We get snapshots of Emily, the naive personal assistant to a charismatic mogul; Billy, the keyboard player obsessed with a woman he barely knew; and Emma, searching for experience and meaning.

Then there is Ollie, the directionless Oxford academic, whose path to Bleaker Island runs parallel to Stevens’ own voyage. His is the story she abandons in favour of her own, leaving more than a few questions about how his plight is resolved.

Each scenario and character are delicately crafted and Stevens’ next effort will be eagerly awaited.

- Rob Kidd is an ODT reporter.

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