This is not a Pity Memoir by Abi Morgan
Morgan is a BAFTA and Emmy award winning screenwriter. Most recently, you may have watched her BBC TV series The Split, following a family of divorce lawyers, starring the wonderful Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan as the central couple with a rocky marriage. I enjoyed the high drama of The Split a lot, and although I was aware that Morgan had written a memoir, it wasn’t until I heard Nicola Walker reading from it on the radio and forced a tear to my eye, that I felt compelled to read the whole book, and I ordered a copy.
The book’s title is scrawled over the pink front cover – a little uninspiring perhaps, until you take the dust-jacket off to reveal a second half to the sentence, ‘It’s a Love Story’ it says on the cheerful yellow boards underneath.
In 2018, Abi Morgan’s partner Jacob, who has MS, developed a type of encephalitis after taking an experimental MS drug. It put him in a coma, and when he eventually woke up, he didn’t recognise Abi, he thought she was an imposter; he did recognise their two children though. His rehabilitation would be long and slow and in the middle of it, Abi, who looked after him and their kids as well as carrying on writing scripts, was diagnosed with breast cancer and had all the treatments. Both Abi and Jacob go on journeys of recovery, carrying on through Covid for three brutal years. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but maybe you can guess.
It was an easy read, obviously fairly quickly written, a real outpouring and still raw in places. Morgan tells her story with wit and candour, being quite hard on herself, but also funny – reminding me slightly of Heartburn by Nora Ephron, but with less sarcasm. Morgan knew that their relationship was in a bit of a rut before Jacob got ill and she frets about what’ll happen if he does come back. While I could imagine Nicola Walker reading the whole book, it did feel a bit self-indulgent, going on a bit; the abridged radio chapters were perfect. Morgan has a real personal story to tell, and she is undeniably a superb screenwriter, but her book could have been a little tauter and edited perhaps. I still really enjoyed reading it though.
Source: Own copy. (7.5/10) John Murray hardback, 288 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s (free UK P&P)
The Island House by Mary Considine
The author of this memoir fell in love with Cornwall at an early age when her mother spotted an advert:
The experience advertised in the Farm Holiday Guide of 1979 sounded idyllic, irresistible: ‘Privately owned island with natural rock swimming pool’. There were only three houses there, my mother learned from the guidebook, and two beaches; no roads, no shops, the most primitive sanitation, but palm trees and sea thrift, oystercatchers, sandpipers and seals. It would be worth the effort of bullying my father into going away for what she must have suspected might be our last holiday together as a family; worth the car-sickness and long, hot hours of his nervous driving, to come to this isolation, this peace.
St Georges island is off the coast of Looe, only accessible by boat, and the author spent idyllic summers there, getting to know the elderly Atkins sisters, Attie and Babs, who owned the island and lived in the main house.
Decades later, the Atkins sisters had died and the island became a managed nature reserve under the aegis of the Wildlife Trust. And when Mary spotted in 2010 that they were looking for new managers for the island, she applied for the job. Mary as a playwright and screenwriter, and her husband Patrick, now possibly diagnosed with Parkinson’s, had finally given up trying for a family, and were looking for a fresh start somewhere. Mary’s long association with the island helped get them the job despite having no naturalist type qualifications, so they pack up their lives in London and head for Cornwall.
The book goes on to detail their hard-working life on the island, renovating the houses and their grounds, trying to grow vegetables, and very much enjoying the flora and fauna of the island and the seasons – even the hard winters when boats could rarely cross. Mary jumps backwards and forwards in time to interject bits from her previous visits and to give a portrait of the former idiosyncratic owners. They’re not always on their own, Gus and Sheila who managed the island for the Atkins were there sometimes, and there were family visits, and many deliveries – all the building materials for renovations had to be carried up from the jetty! Patrick’s illness taking a turn for the worse eventually put an end to their stay, and they reluctantly relocate back to the mainland. But Mary’s heart stays firmly with the island.
The success of Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path and other similar nature/journey-based memoirs have created a large appetite for this kind of book, and Considine’s memoir falls perfectly into that sub-genre. She’s not the first to write about childhood summers spent on a remote island though – earlier this year I finally read Tove Jansson’s perfect The Summer Book. It would be hard to better the Jansson, but Considine’s memoir will appeal to fans of the Winn, even if you end up comparing the husband’s illnesses which was perhaps inevitable. Some of Considine’s transitions from present to past were slightly abrupt, it taking a couple of sentences to realise we’d moved back to when the Atkins sisters were on the island, but there was much to enjoy in reading this memoir.
Source: Review copy – thank you. (7/10) Monoray hardback, 288 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)