Author, Book review, Lisa Williams, memoir, Non-fiction

‘Letters to Virginia Woolf’ by Lisa Williams


Nonfiction – paperback; Hamilton Books; 92 pages; 2005. Review copy courtesy of the author.

This is a book that defies classification: is it a memoir, a meditation on Virginia Woolf, an anti-war manifesto or a feminist text? The short answer is that it is a combination of all of these, but it’s also a testimony about life and survival in difficult times.

I am not a Woolf scholar, so I was not sure what to expect from this book. It is not something that would normally appear on my radar.

But it is so beautifully written and so deeply personal that it is hard not to be affected by it. Despite reading it in one short sitting, I was surprised to find myself thinking about it several days later.

Williams opens this lyrical first-person narrative with her experiences in New York on the day that terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Centre.

“The future would be forever stained by the vision of those flames devouring the World Trade Centre towers, those flames burning up those lives ended so abruptly, robbed of the future that was due them,” she writes.

And, as she watches her young son play in the sandpit of a local playground on 9/11, she adds: “And yet it was the children that day who took a defiant stance against terror. While the rest of us waded through a vague and undetermined sense of dread, the children played on, refusing for now, to give up their short-lived innocence.”

From such horrific events, Williams begins to acknowledge that life, often fragile and tenuous,  is forever changed in ways that are beyond our control. And, in a series of moving, heart-felt and deeply personal letters to Virginia Woolf, she explores the notion of lost innocence, using Woolf’s ideas about war, memory and childhood as a catalyst.

In just 78 short pages, Williams regales us with vignettes and stories about love and loss, terror and pain as they relate to her. Most of these are deeply personal memories relating to her “coming of age” – her parent’s divorce, her mother’s remarriage, teenage love affairs, her role in the anti-Vietnam movement and, perhaps most telling of all, her heart-wrenching experiences of fertility treatment. As she exorcises these ghosts of the past, she pays homage to many of Woolf’s troubled characters (especially Septimus from Mrs Dalloway) and, importantly, to Woolf herself, who could not write about the body.

Above all, I think the one thing that really shines through Williams’ short book is this: her appreciation of life’s wonder in all its complexity and fragility. This contrasts nicely with Woolf’s desire to preserve it (under the dictum “a common interest unites us: it is one world, one life”) and the terrorists’ desire to take it away.

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