A memoir that questions what it means to come home


After Donald Trump came to power, Rebecca Mead could not shake off her restlessness. For months, the long date New Yorker the writer felt that his existence had “reduced to a meager tunnel of survival.” When she realized that “the darkness was only in its infancy”, she began to think about her escape. Unlike so many other fantasies at the time, as a British citizen she could turn an alternate reality into reality. (Having a portable career helped, too.) So in the summer of 2018, Mead and her American husband, also a writer, seized the opportunity to give their dual-heritage son some experience of England as a plus. than a tourist.

Still a writer, Mead also jumped at the chance to pull a book out of his move. In Home/Land: A Memoir of Departure and Returnshe skillfully layers historical research with autobiography to destabilize familiar ideas of homecoming and memoir writing.

Mead’s restlessness will come as no surprise to those who have read his experimental memoirs. My life at the Middlemarch, an account of his decades-long love of George Eliot’s masterpiece. When she first encountered the novel at the age of 17, living in the quiet seaside town of Weymouth, England, she intensely identified with Dorothea Brooke, the provincial protagonist “yearning for a more meaningful existence”. In her own quest for a meaningful life, Mead moved to Manhattan at age 21, intending to earn a degree in journalism and return to England. Instead, she fell in love with the city and stayed there after graduation, progressing through a series of jobs (editorial assistant, fact-checker, New Yorker journalist). About every five years, she reread middle market, aware that “the questions George Eliot showed his characters struggling with would all be mine eventually”, and eager to discover new wisdom with older eyes. One question in particular resonates in his latest book: “What are the satisfactions of personal ambition, and how might they be weighed against ties and duties to others?” »

Reading Middle-walk was Mead’s way of staring into a crystal ball, and Country performed a similar function for me. I left Australia in 2012 aged 19, convinced there were bigger and better options overseas (although my role model was more Rory Gilmore than Dorothea Brooke). After college in the United States, I was offered a job at Atlantic and I ended up staying… and staying. I missed my family and my neighborhood, but my new life in the US capital was fun and far less predictable than any future I could imagine in Sydney. Mead’s ode to the enchanted foreigner resonated: her status as a foreigner (particularly a white, educated, English-speaker with a welcome accent) was an accidental asset, both professionally and personally. “That must be it to be beautiful,” she wrote, putting into words the surprise I felt as a new transplant when Americans remembered me after brief, mundane encounters. My romanticism about DC faded during the Trump years, but I continued to associate the prospect of returning to Australia with failure – failure of ambition, failure of imagination. A nagging question: Would going home still be a backup plan?

I had found the right book. Mead’s memoir disrupts the conventional notion of homecoming as a matter of choosing ease, comfort, and grounding over adventure, growth, and motivation. What she struggles to explain to friends and strangers is that she’s less motivated by the prospect of returning to her hometown than by the idea of ​​moving her 13-year-old son. Her own youthful desire to explore was fueled by the fact that she “never really felt at home in my house”, and she feels compelled to disrupt and expand her child’s understanding of the world. “A sense of displacement is so constitutional to myself that I seem to have been compelled to make it my son’s legacy,” she wrote. Even New York, she finds, “can make a young person think there is no other place in the world significant enough to matter. I want to inoculate my son against such provincialism.

Mead herself is ready for an encore. Back in London, she is again an outsider. Creating a life in Britain after 30 years away is difficult. A dip in the freezing ponds of Hampstead Heath makes her nostalgic for afternoons in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, reading books and eating at a Russian restaurant on the boardwalk. But she is eager to reveal herself. She turns pond swims into a “daily discipline,” continuing even when the temperatures drop and her “collar bones and ribs felt ready to break” from submersion. For her, the austere but exhilarating acclimatization that this new ritual entails is symbolic of a wider “acceptance of… this cold and reserved country”.

Now an “uprooted New Yorker”, Mead finds herself for the first time “taken by a fantasy of ancestry”. Wandering London, she imagines her “dead ancestors… walking these streets like characters in search of a novel”. His own search for a stronger sense of grounding is not easy. Her husband comes from a wealthy, connected Boston family with a “warehouse of history” dating back to the early 19th century. Mead has more humble ancestry (bartender, carpenter, illustrator) and only a thin archive: a pencil sketch, military records, a few letters, a family tree, and a handful of birth, death, and marriage records.

In search of a more vivid sense of place, she turns to the works of culture. The result is a collage of London – with a focus on working life in the 20th century – where class is “less like a system and more like a miasma”. Walter Sickert’s pre-World War I paintings, for example, become “surrogate images of the domestic life of my grandmother, her parents, and her siblings—too many people crammed into too few coins, running out of money to make ends meet. ”

In a crazy stroke of luck, the man Mead hires to build the bookcases for his new home is the stuff of the novels himself. A former carpenter in his mid-seventies, John exemplifies the great risks and rewards of deviations in life – far greater than Mead’s writing existence can encompass. Until his release in 2018, John was Britain’s longest-serving prisoner, convicted of murder for shooting a bouncer after a pub fight in the 1970s (he claims the man had gouged out his eye his friend with a broken bottle). He and Mead gradually become friends. They share the experience of coming out of exile – a “voluntary and privileged exile” in his case – to a changed London, a city they haven’t really known since their 20s. Even John’s Cockney accent marks him as part of a bygone generation. Many young Londoners, Mead learns from his son, speak a dialect that brings together key features of the languages ​​of its many immigrant groups and signals their “London future status”. For Mead and John (who tinker with his own memoirs), finding a place in the middle of the stream means exploring connections to the past.

John serves as a warning about how one wrong decision can drastically change a life, but he’s also proof that stasis can be the darkest outcome of all. While incarcerated, his glimpses of freedom were hard-earned: he tells TV-worthy stories of his escapes, climbing out of a bathroom window or scaling a wall with a “rope made of netting that he had stolen from the prison gymnasium”. visiting sick family members (he was 64 when he pulled off this last skid; “the oldest prisoner to ever climb that wall” he boasted for The Guardian). Once, with the help of a private plane, he flew to Spain. These interludes kept him from going crazy, he tells Mead. But he paid for them, serving more than double his original sentence.

“We chose movement because movement is a kind of freedom,” Mead writes of her family’s decision to leave their cozy Brooklyn community. Yet the movement also has its share of perils. The clay in London is soft, she learns, so the city’s buildings are always shifting and settling in unbalanced formations. Historical movement That’s how real estate brokers and surveyors describe the phenomenon – a phrase, Mead writes, that “seemed to sum up the moment in the country I left and the one I returned to, when the ground shook underfoot in unprecedented ways.” At a time when few feel truly solid, Mead’s book is a reminder that having a place to return to and a story to explore is a luxury. Country offered me hope that returning to Sydney might one day be as daring and refreshing as leaving.


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