MALCOLM FORBES Star Tribune
“Home/Land: A Memoir of Departure and Return” by Rebecca Mead; Alfred A. Knopf, 240 pages, $27.
Rebecca Mead’s 2014 book “My Life in Middlemarch” was an original and insightful hybrid work. Combining literary biography, textual commentary and snippets of personal memoirs, it shed new light on George Eliot’s “study of provincial life” and at the same time revealed how the novel had both helped and guided her. when she first met him at 17 and when she revisited him at key milestones over the years.
If there was a downside to the book, it was that Mead’s experiences were often overshadowed and eventually overshadowed by Eliot’s life story. She avoids this problem in her latest book, another personal account, by positioning herself squarely at the center of it. Its narrative includes the main narrative, but departing at regular intervals are welcome riffs and musings on a wide range of topics.
“Home/Land: A Memoir of Departure and Return” chronicles the author’s move from his adopted home in New York to his native London. After growing increasingly disenchanted with the political situation in America, Mead, a staff writer at The New Yorker, decided to leave the country with her husband and teenage son.
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It was a big step: she had lived in America for 30 years and had become an American citizen; London had changed dramatically during this period and it harbored mixed feelings about its “cold, moated island nation”. But in the summer of 2018, she and her family finally took the plunge and moved on.
Mead describes how relocation brought dislocation: she spends months in limbo, staying in temporary short-term accommodation and adjusting to a new environment and different ways of doing things. As she recounts how she settled in, one thought prompts another. London’s landmarks – streets, buildings, institutions, leisure spaces – trigger private memories or engender meditations on art and literature.
A profile of the carpenter she recruits to build her libraries – a man who until recently ‘had the distinction of being Britain’s longest-serving prisoner’ – sparks reflections on the seaside town of Weymouth where she grew up , her first love, Thomas “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” de Hardy and the birthplace of her late father.
Mead continues to zigzag through time by replaying his early days as a journalist in New York and tracing the story of his parents. Her non-linear approach never disorients – on the contrary, it invigorates, creating as she does a rich patchwork of overlapping ideas and memories. Only occasionally do Mead’s ruminations get too heavy for their own good.
It is an artfully crafted memoir that offers a lucid examination of home, roots, belonging, and personal and national identity. At the end, Mead explains that she “sifted through fragments, filled in blanks, made imaginative leaps, all in an effort to reintegrate me into the fabric of the city.” In doing so, she shows us how we are shaped both by the places we come from and by the places we call home.
Malcolm Forbes has written for The Times Literary Supplement, The Economist and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.