Friday, April 28, 2017

Book Review: Bleaker House by Nell Stevens

"Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World" by Nell Stevens
First published in 2017
241 pages
My rating: 3 out of 5

The Short Of It:
Oh golly. It's such a bummer when a book you've been anxiously awaiting turns out to be just-ok!

The Long Of It:
Grad student Nell Stevens gets a fellowship to go anywhere in the world for three months, all expenses paid, to work on her novel, and she chooses the remote, frigid Falkland Islands, just north of Antarctica, where sheep and penguins far outnumber humans. This sounds 100% like a book I'd love, and I was practically counting the days to its release! I love memoirs, I love books set in cold places, I love books about books and writers, I love penguins... and that cover! But, sadly, it all fell a bit flat for me.

Toward the end of the book when Nell realizes her novel is just not going to work out and she decides to turn her experience in the Falklands into a memoir instead, she lists for readers a few of the journal entries from her trip. For instance:

"Wednesday 7th August: Today my eyes are heavy and tight, and I'm listless, and suddenly so frustrated to find myself on a small island, surrounded by snow, cut off from the rest of life. I got up and did my exercises just the same, and sat in the sunroom and stared at the patch of world outside -- snow, geese, red-roofed sheds -- and imagined all the things I want to do next, all the places I want to go..."

This is what I was expecting to get with "Bleaker House": an adventure book, a depiction of life completely alone on a tiny, weather-beaten island with just enough food to get by and unreliable, painfully slow internet service.

There was a little bit of that, but mostly it was about the process of writing and about self-introspection. The book also included several chapters of Nell's work (and not just from the novel she was trying to write on Bleaker Island), and that felt off to me. While some of the snippets actually were interesting -- and Nell is a good writer -- they felt misplaced here, randomly inserted between of chapters about Bleaker Island without preamble; plus, some of them ended without any kind of resolution. Too, some of the stories Nell writes about her life and past experiences felt a little... dangly? I was sometimes left wondering, so what was the point of including that?

I liked Nell, and her voice did shine through, but it just didn't seem like she had enough material for a memoir. And I was hoping for an overwhelming sense of atmosphere and place -- the idea of spending several weeks, much less an entire lifetime, in the Falklands fascinates me -- but it just didn't come through. Some photos would've been lovely, and I would've enjoyed reading more in-depth details about the locals Nell met in the Falklands. Why do they choose to stay? What's it like living in such a tiny, isolated community?

The book did have its share of redeeming qualities, though, and I hate to sound like I'm bashing it -- and Nell -- too much. It was plenty readable, and, as mentioned, Nell is a decent writer. I'd be intrigued to read a novel of hers, if she ever does publish one. Perhaps the penguin on the front and the blurb misadvertise the book a bit, and because of that my expectations were out of sync with what actually lay between the covers.


  1. I think I felt almost the exact same way as you about this book! And I definitely agree about the cover being a bit misleading. There was a disappointing lack of penguins. I really wanted more penguins.

    1. I know! I wanted more penguins, more wilderness, more roughing it. Fewer weird stories about seducing your teacher's husband...

  2. I hate being disappointed by books I've been looking forward to as well. I can only wish you good luck with the next one!

    1. Thank you! Funnily enough, I actually gave up on the book I tried to read right after this. Not my reading week!


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