Not To Be Overlooked
By Alicja Baranowska and Emily Simms
Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column covers reviews of two non-fiction titles by Alicja (Stephen from the Inside Out) and Emily (Recollections of My Non-Existence).
Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit
Published by Granta Books, March 2020
Rebecca Solnit’s latest work, Recollections of My Non-Existence, longlisted for the 2021 Orwell Political Prize, is a memoir written by someone who has dedicated their life to living. Rather than following a linear path, it circles back on themes that range from finding your voice as a writer to femicide and misogyny. The themes that compose the book cannot be confined to a mere part or chapter. They are woven into the growth of the writer and person Solnit has become since she decided she would become the former in first grade.
We meet Solnit as a 19-year-old student at San Francisco State, looking for a place affordable enough to call home before the city was ‘smoothed out’, and the black neighbourhood she waltzed into unknowingly, became a middle-class white place. Thus, the neighbourhood she settled on became less of a neighbourhood, losing its heart and strong sense of community. She talks in-depth of the people like Mr Young, the kind building manager that accepted her in, and the places such as an AIDS hospice that opened across the street, and builds an image so vivid, you almost feel like you’re walking with her. Solnit constantly walks the tightrope of acknowledging her privilege, whilst capturing her experiences of poverty and the weight of being a young woman.
The existence of the community she lived in and the love in her life for the people she shares it with, contrasts darkly with the non-existence of her sense of self as a young woman. In the recent wake and outpouring of responses by women in relation to the murder of Sarah Everard, Solnit’s personal experiences and that of those in her life, read so raw. My own copy of the book has expanded in size from the sheer number of pages that have felt necessary to dog-ear. Solnit unpacks a lot of the anxieties and underlying trauma that can be so difficult to articulate when it is deeply rooted in the everyday. When you have the language and ability to write with such specificity, it translates into the authenticity that Solnit achieves in her writing.
Although she is well-educated, with a master’s degree in Journalism from Berkley, it seems that Solnit has learned the most through experiencing the world and opening herself up to listening to what others have to say. For someone that can lose themselves deeply in a book, and effortlessly slot in a reference from a Greek tragedy, she really seems to have lived. At times this memoir was not the easiest to read, due to the sheer honesty of Solnit’s voice as a writer, but it was an important one nonetheless.
Stephen From the Inside Out by Susie Stead
Published by Impress Press, April 2021
Stephen From the Inside Out is an incredibly powerful part-biography, part-memoir dealing with heavy topics, such as mental health, living with disabilities, abuse and social and health history.
It’s not an easy book, but it’s an important one, and one that stays with the reader long after turning the last page and finishing the book. Stephen, the main character of Stephen From the Inside Out, is a man who has spent twenty-five years of his life inside British psychiatric wards. Over the years, he has faced the abuse and the changing laws and practices regarding mental health patients. But he persevered and found moments of true happiness.
Stephen From the Inside Out is both a biography of Stephen, a man with strong convictions living with mental health issues, who is in some ways a poet, but also a story of Susie, the author of the book. Through her friendship with Stephen, Susie learns and grows as a person, and changes. At its heart, Stephen From the Inside Out is a very personal story of two people’s unusual friendship. At moments painful and utterly heart-breaking, Susie Stead’s narrative remains honest, raw and most importantly, human.
The book largely composes of the conversations between Stephen and Susie, entries from Susie’s diaries, and recollections of her encounters with Stephen. As a large part of the book was written and read to Stephen, his reactions are incorporated into the final narrative. As a result, Stephen From the Inside Out has a meta element to it, ultimately creating the narrative, as the title suggests, from the inside out.
I would definitely recommend reading Stephen From the Inside Out for those interested in reading about mental health and surrounding issues.