Writing & News

Review of Gemma Nisbet’s “The Things We Live With” in ABR

ESSAY COLLECTION

Intimate encounters

An excavation of the past

by Francesca Sasnaitis •

December 2023, no. 460

The interconnected essays in Gemma Nisbet’s début collection, The Things We Live With, revolve around a premise that is as familiar as Marcel Proust’s madeleines or W.G. Sebald’s images: that things – objects, documents, photographs, even colours – evoke memories of the past. Her essays shift seamlessly from childhood to adult travels, jobs, relationships, and the problems that can lurk beneath a functional exterior.

Nisbet begins with ‘Edward Sylvester Hynes’, in the aftermath of her father’s death and the grief associated with sorting through the ephemera he left behind. Among other things she had forgotten or not seen before, she recognises a painting by Hynes, faithfully hauled by her father from residence to residence. This ‘intimate encounter with stuff’ renews her grief. Nisbet’s excavation of the past comes with the hope that discovering the source of her anxiety and depression might give her, if not a cure, at least a modicum of understanding. The problem she faces is that younger manifestations of our parents are unknowable and can only be surmised from what little evidence remains.

To Nisbet’s credit, her sentiments are never mawkish, despite the emotive nature of her subject. She is curious, questing, and questioning, clever and successful, but also self-doubting, her process a complex stitching together of personal anecdote and related research. Among the many questions she poses are: whether memories are necessarily fragmentary, by turns exaggerated, misremembered, or ‘majestically’ forgotten; whether the past is reconstructed according to experience, inclination, peccadilloes. By way of answer – one of many partial explanations – Nisbet equates the fabrication of the past with an act of narrative imagination. She readily admits to her uncertainties and to the creative licence her essays have undergone.

From feeling the sharp edges of baby teeth in the palm of her hand to surveying the landscape of childhood from the top of real or metaphorical sand dunes to finding refuge and freedom in once feared attic spaces, Nisbet ‘assembl[es] a jigsaw puzzle’ from memories tempered by adult insights. In ‘Baby Teeth’, she reveals that the lessons learned in childhood have lasting consequences, not always positive. She recalls learning to suppress her feelings at an early age, ‘having gained the strong sense that [she] would fit in better this way’ and, by puberty, that she was ‘well on [her] way to maintaining an emotional life that was, in many ways, split’. If her feelings did occasionally well up and overflow, they were put down to unwarranted intensity.

In Part I of the title essay, a broken fridge magnet triggers memories of her American travels and the realisation that a fretful child had become an anxious adult. Nisbet seeks professional help for her maladies and becomes the ‘good’ patient, willing to try anything various psychologists suggest. She is aware that her status as ‘a white, middle-class cis woman’ ensures she will (usually) be heard. But she also feels guilt and shame, and, as if second-guessing herself, worries that she is not ‘sick enough’ to be writing these essays. Life writers, she says, must repeatedly ask: ‘who do we think we are, to assume our lives are in any way interesting to other people?’ This critical self-awareness – that recounting an experience may ‘fail to capture all of its various and often conflicting parts’ – is her most endearing characteristic.

‘A Small, Brown Suitcase’ is ostensibly about the grandfather known only from the suitcase’s contents. The point of her attempt to understand this elusive figure is that his life ended ‘with mental illness, and apparent loneliness, and a long decline’; she fears the inheritance of that propensity from her paternal family. While trying to understand her father and his father, she is also ‘addressing [her] own fears about the future’.

In ‘The Things We Live With, Part II’, Nisbet returns to her time in Texas and the stay in a cluttered cottage that prompted an early attempt to construe a person from their possessions. The crux of this essay, however, is the debilitating degree of her depression and anxiety. She describes with perspicacity how we are expected to deal with any kind of illness: ‘to find a silver lining, a lesson, a story that makes sense of suffering […] framing it as an opportunity for personal and spiritual growth’. Although Nisbet ‘mostly failed to find comfort in the kinds of redemptive narratives familiar from popular media’, she does find comfort in the disorder (uncertainty) that constitutes a more realistic narrative.

‘The stories we tell about our lives are never the whole truth,’ Nisbet admits. She concludes that fictive distortions often provide a more authentic representation of reality than sterile facts. In the penultimate essay, ‘Swimming, or Hoping’, she reflects on list-making as a performative exercise; the belief that a list, even of seemingly unrelated items, might bring order to chaos, prepare one for the future, and make sense of ‘personal and cultural tumult’. The structure of all Nisbet’s essays owes much to Joan Didion, especially the essays collected in The White Album (1979). Like Didion in the wake of the Manson Family murders, Nisbet has practised the kind of magical thinking that is intended to allay paranoia. She believes that meaning can be drawn from fragments, ‘however provisional or incomplete’; that in essays, as in lived reality, ‘one thing follows another, without any clear sense of how or why each might give rise to the next’. Perhaps, after all, uncertainty is not so bad if we can learn to embrace it and a mutable identity can be a useful antidote to hubris. 

Francesca Sasnaitis

Francesca Sasnaitis

Francesca Sasnaitis has returned to Melbourne after seven years in Perth and completing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia.

The Things We Live With: Essays on uncertainty

The Things We Live With: Essays on uncertainty

by Gemma Nisbet

Upswell, $29.99 pb, 220 pp