Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?: A superb collection

Book Review: Jenny Diski is an immensely elegant prose stylist, writes Susan McKay

British writer Jenny Diski was a regular contributor to the London Review of Books. Photograph: Photoshot/Getty Images

British writer Jenny Diski was a regular contributor to the London Review of Books. Photograph: Photoshot/Getty Images

In one of the essays in this superb, and sadly posthumous, collection, Jenny Diski refers back to the quote from Beckett’s Malone Dies that she’d used as the epigraph to her book about a journey to the Antarctic: “I wonder if I am not talking yet again about myself. Shall I be incapable, to the end, of lying on any other subject?” It would have been just as apt, she notes, as the preface to any one of her books, fiction or non-fiction.

That book was as much about her “rather brief, rackety” relationship with her mother, as it was about sailing through icebergs and observing the indifferent gaze of ranks of penguins. It was also about searching for “a place of safety, a white oblivion”. At other stages of her life, she found this, provisionally, between the white sheets of a bed in a psychiatric hospital. Diski is an explorer who never forgets that she is skating on very thin ice. “It’s almost always personal,” Diski says. It is also almost always political. Invariably, it is lit up by delightful shafts of comedy. I laughed aloud several times while reading one of the last pieces, an incredibly moving account of the hospital appointment at which Diski is told she has inoperable cancer. If you like guides to self help, mindfulness and how to be positive, this is not the book for you.

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