Ninety-eight-year-old editor and writer Diana Athill could have rested on her laurels when she won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2009 for her memoir “Somewhere Towards the End,” but instead she wrote another book: this slim-yet-satisfying reflection on her past and thoughtful appraisal of her present life in a senior living home in London.
Athill surprised herself by reaching the point where living in a senior home and being cared for was preferable to living independently in her own flat. In a chapter titled “The Decision,” she writes about watching her friends move into homes, one by one, and how at a certain point she could no longer deny that she needed help. “How, having reached my nineties, could I fool myself into thinking that I was not moving into that territory?”
She then details the arduous process of paring down a lifetime of physical possessions to fit into one small room, and the experience of what it felt like returning to the girls school she attended as a young woman.
“Alive, Alive Oh!” is not just a mediation on the experience of aging and its attending challenges; there are reminiscences, too, so beautifully written and exquisitely detailed that if one wanted to know what it was like to live in the English countryside in the 1920s or ’30s, or what it was like in post-World War II London for a young woman, they would do well to read this memoir in addition to any history book.
The most poignant chapter, “Alive, Alive Oh!” is about the painful and near fatal miscarriage that Athill suffered in her early 40s. It is obvious to the reader that the decision to have the child and the sudden and traumatic loss of the baby left indelible marks on Athill’s soul, emotions that she openly and honestly shares.
Other chapters explore the bonds of family and the experiences Athill had as an unmarried woman who chose a less conventional way of living for her time.
She has few regrets, or few that she shares here, but two important life lessons: “Avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness.”
In the introduction, Athill writes, “Looking at things is never time wasted,” and this dictum has obviously served her well as she mines her memories of a life well-lived and generously lays them out on the page for the rest of the world to enjoy.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.