If I trace it back, that wish for whiteout began with the idea of being an inmate in a psychiatric hospital. Not during my first stay in a mental hospital, in Hove, when I was fourteen, but later, aged twenty and twenty-one, in London’s Maudsley psychiatric unit, hospital became my preferred environment. White hospital sheets seemed to hold out the promise of what I really wanted: a place of safety, a white oblivion. Oblivion, strictly speaking, was what I was after, but white hospital sheets were an approximation, I believed.
As the book begins, Diski is facing a question she hasn’t thought about for decades: is her mother still alive, or not? She assures the reader that she really, truly has been perfectly happy not knowing (and we will hear why this is, during the course of the memoir), but her daughter Chloe won’t believe it; she says she knows Diski must be interested really.
No one had mentioned this when I was pregnant… What they don’t tell you is that one day they will get to be eighteen, and intellectually inquisitive and autonomous, and they’ll go digging around in things that have remained satisfactorily enigmatic for most of your life. They don’t tell you that they will consider their business what has only been your business. They don’t tell you that after the education you so approve of, they will be equipped to find out what you have been evading for thirty contented years.
Most of the memoir consists of Diski’s trip to Antarctica to find the perfect whiteout moment: that moment of oblivion on an uninhabited continent. Of course, this moment never quite comes, because she is headed there on a cruise ship full of people. Human beings ruin everything — except they don’t; Diski has a lively curiosity, and is full of both satirical wit and compassion.
This story is interpolated with her memories and investigation of her own childhood, including conversations with other people who lived in her apartment building when she was small. She calls herself “Jennifer” instead of Jenny, as if she were a completely other person then, seeing herself from outside instead of remembering. It’s an odd way of writing a memoir — it must be an odd way of reliving trauma — to remove yourself from the memories, in order to make yourself safe.
In the end, Diski does get to Antarctica, and she does find out what happened to her Schrodinger’s mother (alive? dead? we don’t know until we open the box, but then it changes everything.) This marvelous piece of writing — travel, memoir, exploration of self and landscape — is revealing, funny, wry, and as carefully observed about herself as it is about everything around her. I got this recommendation years and years ago from Dorothy, and I’m so glad I finally read it.