Review: In Gratitude

Last moments that will last


Jenny Diski
Bloomsbury £16.99

Jenny Diski died a matter of days after this, her last memoir, was published in April. I found it hard to read. Not out of sadness at a great talent lost (although that is undoubtedly the case), or because any story that joins a growing cancer canon tells hard truths that all humans face at some point, but because she wrote with a determined lack of sentiment.

A description of the exhausting powers of the anti-cancer drug, carboplatin that "drags its weighty way to eyelids so heavy they threaten to drain down into a viscous puddle at your feet" seemed fitting for immersion in Diski's final work. It relates both how she came to have the life that was ending and the process of leaving it, in all its medical details, uncertainties and indignities.

Ever on the brink of abandonment, Diski was a troubled 1960s adolescent, who was relieved of - or rescued from (a matter the book never quite settles) - the chaotic non-parenting of her feckless shmutter-trade father and fantasist mother by the writer Doris Lessing.

Nobel Literature Laureate Lessing, who left two children in Southern Rhodesia to pursue a writing career in London, took in Diski to live with her and remained a significant if difficult presence for 50 years until her death in 2013.

Though Diski had written previously about the experience, it was only as her own days were numbered that she would reveal the story her way and have her reckoning with the towering and unmotherly Lessing. In Gratitude was first published as monthly essays tracking the course of her inoperable cancer in the London Review of Books.

The one constant of Diski's teen years was a belligerent expression. It had her expelled from school and sacked from jobs. The force-field on her face kept people at bay, was accompanied by serious depression and morphed in later adulthood into a preference for not leaving the house for weeks at a time. Confined to working from bed in a day's few hours of energy following radiation therapy, Diski seemed quite at home.

Wilfulness spikes the narrative. It loops around, scratches at key memories, comes back to them as if to drive a knife in deeper but, like Alice in Wonderland, refuses to resolve meaning. The sequence of events is not clear. I was often deterred, looking in on her interior struggle against deeply buried feelings, as well might someone have been who tried to get close in real life.

A few moments of shared understanding with another person, a rare pinch of warmth, is yielded. It is hard for her even to characterise Lessing's gesture of providing a home as one of kindness. Given that Diski maintained a fierce resistance to everything, her melting regret at the prospect of missing her own grandchildren growing up hits the solar plexus.

With her initial evasions, refusal to be labelled as "on a journey" or any such cancer clichés, I was at first stumped as to what we would get from this story. Did she think she was better than other writers felled by cancer? Did she even want us to care enough to stay with her?

But this is the point, and the brilliance. She didn't care, and she would have her moment. When Diski ceased trying to justify her bad behaviour, shrugged off the teenage grump, druggy bedsit and psych ward, she turned her rage on her surrogate parent. When she asked what the hell Lessing thought she was doing, she claimed her life as her own.

The feted writer and ideologist who stole bits of Diski's story for her fiction treated the girl as a project. So the younger writer mined her memories, painful, incomplete and unanswered as they were.

Diski was the only person on earth who could tell this story and she had to tell it, before it was too late.

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