The loss of a loved one teaches us many life lessons. In this memoir about her father, Katharine Smyth writes:
From my father’s death, I learned that grief is personal and unpredictable, that it will confound our expectations as often as fulfill them, that the disappearance of a loved one, even the most loved one, is not necessarily the insurmountable setback we foresee.
It’s hard-earned wisdom and comes to Smyth painfully and slowly as she pieces together many significant memories of her father (including from others, before she was born), the person she had been with him, and the way of life she’d had with him and her mother. Losing him over a prolonged period of time due to a cancer that wouldn’t quit, Smyth was still hit suddenly by his passing. As a beloved only child, her grieving was different from that of her mother’s as the spouse of a long-time depressive alcoholic. Which is probably why Smyth turned for solace to a literary source: Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse.
Considered one of Woolf’s best works, To the Lighthouse also gave Smyth the title of her memoir. A line by Mr. Ramsay, one of the main characters, is later repeated by Mrs. Ramsay, the pivotal character and the parent who dies: “All the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be.” It’s a loaded sentence that will mean many things to many people. Mostly, it’s understood as suggesting that we never truly lose anything or anyone; we always carry it with us.
Woolf had also carried her mother’s memories from a young age after losing her suddenly to rheumatic fever. Mrs. Ramsay embodies Woolf’s mother and, through the perspectives of all the other characters, Woolf’s feelings toward her mother. After writing To the Lighthouse, Woolf felt that her sadness had dimmed and weakened and wrote:
I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her. […] I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it, I explained it and then laid it to rest.
(from ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Moments of Being; Mariner Books, 1985.)
Smyth’s memoir, on the other hand, doesn’t so much purge her sorrow as raise a permanent memorial in honor of her father — a larger-than-life hero to her despite all his flaws, frailties, contradictions, and being sick for almost half of her life. The most alive scenes in this book are the ones describing various father-daughter moments and interactions. Whether they’re sailing together or he’s encouraging her writing work or she’s taking care of him in the hospital, it’s clear that he is the center of her existence and they have a special parent-child bond.
This bond is strongest at their seaside home in Tiverton, Rhode Island. When Smyth was five, her architect parents bought the near-ruin and renovated it together. Woolf’s childhood holidays with her family, including her mother, were in a house by the Cornish coast. The setting of To the Lighthouse is a large, rambling house in the Hebrides islands. Water, then, plays a constant character-like role in both Woolf’s novel and Smyth’s memoir. Indeed, the latter has several poetic, even cinematic, scenes depicting what it’s like to live by the water and what that does to the exteriors and interiors of both houses and people. Smyth’s writing shimmers brightly in these scenes too.
The writing style is certainly influenced by Woolf, whose works Smyth encountered early and immersed herself in deeply, as her essay on LitHub (date unknown), “Forgetting Virginia Woolf” attests. Weaving together three stories — her father’s life, To the Lighthouse, and Woolf’s life — Smyth also adopts Woolf’s innovative three-part narrative structure from the novel, as she has described in her essay, “How Virgina Woolf Taught Me to Mourn” (Lit Hub, 25 Jan 2019). That said, while Woolf reveals Mrs. Ramsay’s death with a wounding sharp thrust of a pointed sentence (or two sentences, depending on the edition), Smyth dwells a lot more on her father’s waning and waxing health and then passing. And, as Smyth’s storytelling is personal rather than fictionalized, along with her father, To the Lighthouse, and Woolf, she also puts herself directly under the microscope for critical exploration.
Although Smyth’s literary criticism of Woolf’s novel doesn’t yield new insights — particularly for loyal Woolf readers — this memoir certainly does justice to Joyce Carol Oates’ 2014 definition in the New York Times (“Deep Reader” 23 Jan 2014):
Rarely attempted, and still more rarely successful, is the bibliomemoir — a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography. The most engaging bibliomemoirs establish the writer’s voice in counterpoint to the subject, with something more than adulation or explication at stake.
Any further comparisons of a debut book to a significant work by a towering literary figure would be unfair. Let us give Smyth her due that she also captures some of the unique and strange temporality of To the Lighthouse by blending pasts, presents, and futures to render an enduring, well-etched portrait of her father as Woolf did of her mother. This is no mean task.
Generally, bereavement-related memoirs are a tricky sub-genre to get right. Some mostly replay trauma, some beatify those lost, and some read like manipulative public performances. Besides, we all have to learn how to grieve with each loss and we all mourn differently. Grief alters so much: our memories because of how and what we remember; our relationship with ourselves because we’ve also lost who we were with the person gone; our relationships with others because of the need to fill (or not) the empty space; our choices and decisions because of how our core value systems change; in short, the very trajectories of lives. Our sorrow itself also changes shape and texture over time. Smyth’s book makes a brave attempt to portray all of this, including how her empathy and understanding for her widowed mother evolves after their shared loss
These days, when personal grief becomes a public performance on social media, it’s heartening to have a book that shows how much better it is to introspect more deeply and allow literature to be both solace and inspiration. Approached like this, literature may not be emotional support, but it can save us from drowning in our loss and teach us to shape it into a work of art. As Smyth writes, “…art may not give us the unequivocal truths that we desire from our world, but it can provide a stay against its chaos and confusion.”