The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick – Review
By Barney Bardsley
In this strange and feverish memoir – reading sometimes like a fairy tale, sometimes a painful confessional – Tanya Shadrick tells the story of her life, and she starts, not with childhood, but with childbirth: specifically, the moment when a post-partum haemorrage brings her, aged 33, to the very brink of death. Nothing is ever the same for her again. “In that perpetual minute,” she writes, “ which I believed might be my last, time past spread itself out like a quilt. I held my life to the light, studying its pattern and rips and repairs… The most awake I’d ever been.”
Broken open by this cataclysmic experience, Shadrick embarks on a series of quixotic artistic experiments – from becoming a hospice scribe, and writing down the stories of people about to die, to re-inventing herself as in ‘artist in public spaces’, most notably as a writer-in-residence at a local outdoor swimming pool, where she talks to the swimmers and copies down their stories onto long scrolls of paper, kneeling for hours by the pool, like a beached water nymph, exotically clothed, and writing, writing, writing.
This extravagant ‘second life’ seems all the more remarkable, when we read of Shadrick’s life up until this moment. Abandoned by her abusive father at a young age, she lives a life of impoverished suffocation with her tense and suffering mother, out in the countryside, where they are isolated – almost outcast – by the local community. Even when her mother marries again, the relationship is toxic, and it is the child – Tanya – who becomes the innocent sacrifice. She compensates by becoming small and invisible, out in nature, where no one can find her, finding solace in the trees.
Eventually she makes her escape to college, and meets her steadfast future husband, Nye. But she still maintains with him a careful, small, quiet life. Together they shut out the world, and until their first baby comes along – and with him that calamitous post-birth bleed – their house, their work, their life, is contained in a carefully sealed Pandora’s Box of love and introspection.
“Courage and insight”
But the world cannot be kept at bay forever. And when the lid is blown off Pandora’s Box, chaos ensues. Even as Shadrick blossoms as a writer and artist, she courts disaster in her personal life, by embarking on passionate relationships – one platonic, the other, less so – with two older men. Her marriage is clearly at risk. Her two children are well aware what is going on. And she spares us nothing of her recklessness, her shame, her confusion, as she pursues these ultimately unobtainable men.
Rarely have I read a memoir as excoriatingly honest as this one. It is hard to read: hard not to judge. But the one person who might have the right to do such judging – her husband – doesn’t ever seem to do so. He stands by their marriage. He waits for her to come to her senses, which finally – slowly, painfully, reluctantly – she does.
In the end, after the stultification of her ‘first life’, then the unboundaried excess of her second, awakened life, she comes to a third age: settling down with what and who she really is, and honouring that. “Gone… was the string in me that had been there all my life, since earliest girlhood: that longing for a man who might save me, if I stayed always small, in one place.” The search for a father substitute in the form of those ‘other men’ is over. Her own husband, her family – her creativity itself – becomes her rightful nourishment and source.
This book is not an easy read. Although written in a style that has a definite elegance and flair, it is sometimes overwrought, sometimes bewilderingly elusive. It feels curiously old-fashioned in places, with archaic, folkloric language, and a use of self-reflexive italics for emphasis throughout, which feels distracting and unnecessary.
Nor does the author herself always come across well, with a self-confessed destructive streak. But her frankness, and her determination to lay bare her grievous mistakes, as well as her triumphs and fortitude, is an act of great courage and insight. She shows us, above all, how long is the shadow cast by a deprived and punishing childhood, and what strength it takes, to emerge from that dark tunnel into mature adulthood: out into the light.
‘The Cure for Sleep’ by Tanya Shadrick is published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £16.99 hardback