Rebecca Solnit is not a writer who likes to get to the point. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the point keeps changing, or that she likes to reach many points at once, or that digression itself is the goal. Her swerving sentences roam, loop, and circle back, then take flight again; her meditations often encompass personal history, art, philosophy, and literature within the same paragraph. Her work is both cerebral and intensely personal. She takes big risks.
“The Faraway Nearby” is possibly Solnit’s best, although her previous books — especially “River of Shadows,” “Wanderlust,” and “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” — were tremendous achievements as well. Of course, any reader who is frustrated by meandering, and who insists upon a linear narrative, should probably steer clear of this author.
As in previous books, “The Faraway Nearby” (which takes its title from Georgia O’Keefe’s painting “From the Faraway, Nearby”) offers a number of themes involving meaningful travels both literal (Iceland) and metaphorical (fairy tales). In a series of 13 chapters with titles like “apricots,'’ “ice,’’ “breath,’’ “flight’’ that circle back and repeat, Solnit blends essay and memoir in examining how we escape through stories, why we tell them, and the role of empathy in our narratives. “[P]lace is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.”
Throughout this consoling and edifying book, Solnit reflects on how storytelling shapes relationships, memory, and identity. “We think we tell stories,” she writes, “but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind.” As for memory, it is “a shifting, fading, partial thing, a net that doesn’t catch all the fish by any means and sometimes catches butterflies that don’t exist.”
Solnit argues in favor of listening to — rather than merely hearing — the tales of others. Hearing is passive; listening is an intentional act. In some cases — think of Scheherazade in “The Thousand and One Nights” — telling a story (and being listened to) can save our lives.
These themes revolve around a central story: Solnit’s fraught relationship with her mother, “who had so confounded me for decades,” possessed a “murderous” fury and died in 2012. Solnit unravels the story of her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s as she details inheriting a hundred pounds of apricots, spread out (in varying states of decay) across her bedroom floor.
“That vast pile of apricots included underripe, ripening, and rotting fruit,” Solnit writes. “The range of stories I can tell about my mother include some of each too.”
For years, Solnit admits, she regarded her mother’s unhappiness as “a sledge to which I was tethered,” dragging it around for analysis and yearning to break free.
Although her bond with her mother may be too messy to sort through, Solnit is determined to at least solve the problem of the “abundance of unstable apricots,” which “seemed to invoke old legacies and tasks and to be an allegory, but for what?”
Just as Solnit’s life seems to be falling apart, the summer before her mother’s death, she is diagnosed with precancerous cells in her breast. “Life was in those days grim,” she recalls, but she is relieved to find that illness “takes away all the need to do and makes just being enough.” It is also “a rupture from which you have to stitch back a storyline of where you’re headed and what it means.”
While she considers the narrative possibilities of her illness, she is forced to reckon with mortality in the most urgent sense. Luckily, her story ends in triumph; the plot, having rendered her vulnerable and frail, is resolved with a happy ending. Yet in that time she also endures the loss of her mother as well as a close friend.
Facing her wounds, both physical and psychological, Solnit explores the generative power of suffering: “Pared back to its bare bones, this book is a history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company then,” she writes. She reveals, too, how stories keep us alive and connect us to one another. To construct a story means “mapping an unknown territory that arises as you travel,” Solnit writes. “If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet.”
Those who traverse “The Faraway Nearby” will be grateful for the journey.