A Memoir of Departure and Return
By Rebecca Mead
In recent years, it has become fashionable to claim that a person needs special license to write about herself — that she must be extraordinarily famous, unusually rich or fantastically traumatized if she is to venture one of those embarrassing indulgences, a memoir. A person who insists on documenting an uneventful life is guilty of self-importance and so, accordingly, it has become fashionable to blame the defects of a book on the defects of its genre. Common wisdom has it that a work of autobiography is by nature doomed to insularity.
In point of fact, a book is justified by its quality, not its subject. “Home/Land,” a new book by the New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead, does not falter by virtue of belonging to the reviled species of memoir; rather, it flails because it is insufficiently interested in the external world. Despite its many arresting images and diverting anecdotes, it reads like a very smart person’s very well-written diary.
Mead, an accomplished reporter who specializes in profiles, is the author of three books, two of them autobiographical. Her most recent, “My Life in Middlemarch,” is a bibliomemoir that weds criticism, reporting and personal reflection. Though it is wide-ranging, spanning both decades and continents, even its most meandering passages are tethered, in one way or another, to George Eliot’s masterpiece. “Home/Land” has no such through-line, and it can be maddeningly discursive as a result.
An English transplant, Mead decided to return to her native country in 2018, following her dismay at the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Nominally, “Home/Land” chronicles her move from New York to London, but in reality, it is as hard to say where the book is set as it is to say what, exactly, it is about. The text ricochets from reporting to recollection and from past to present, veering from Mead’s youth in the coastal town of Weymouth to her adulthood in the stately Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene. There are meditations on Mead’s father, a bureaucrat in the Civil Service, and her mother, an advertising executive at Harrods; ruminations on her husband, a fellow writer, and her emotionally precocious adolescent son; discourses on the writings of Thomas Hardy and Graham Greene; investigations into grave robbing, the sociolinguistic patterns edging out Cockney speech, and the origins of the London Underground; and genealogies of landmarks Mead chances to pass on the street. Though “Home/Land” advertises its interest in its author’s alienation from the country of her birth, it is so densely peppered with interludes that it seems to be composed almost entirely of asides.
In fairness, Mead’s prose is so dexterous that it can be difficult to summon the will to fault her. She has an exacting eye and a gift for trenchant phrasing. An order of fish and chips is “snowed with salt”; teenagers milling around on the sidewalk stage an elaborate “choreography of self-consciousness”; and a decommissioned oil rig languishing off the coast of Dover “looks almost animate, as if it might rouse itself and lumber toward me.”
But for all of her careful attention to the subjects she sketches with such exquisite detail, Mead is often ham-handedly insensitive to political context. In her opening salvo, she recalls the aftermath of the 2016 election with horror, reporting that “the edges of my consciousness had turned shadowy. I felt as if my existence had contracted, shrunk down to a meager tunnel of survival” — a rather melodramatic pronouncement coming from a writer living in comfort and style in one of the most liberal enclaves in the country. Later, she reports that packing up the contents of her Fort Greene brownstone felt like “clearing the house after her own funeral.” Yet she makes no mention of the many displaced persons who have not opted, of their own free will, to decamp from one of the most expensive and glamorous cities in the world to yet another of the most expensive and glamorous cities in the world.
If “Home/Land” is often pleasant to read, it is because Mead’s writing is locally absorbing. And if we sometimes have the impression that the book is outward-looking, it is because so many of Mead’s digressions amount to piquant micro-articles about the history of London or New York. In the end, however, the memoir’s connective tissue is ineluctably personal: The random assortment of places and persons it treats can be unified only in terms of their meaning for Mead.
“Coincidence,” she writes, “is irrational, embarrassing — as clunky and unsubtle as the plot devices favored by Victorian authors. … But coincidences happen even more frequently in life than they do in Victorian novels, and I have a taste for their numinous significance.”
It is hard, as an outsider, to share her conviction that there is anything especially numinous about the fact that one of the houses her English real estate agent showed her was across the street from the flat in which her father grew up. The problem is not that this coincidence is irrational or embarrassing but rather that its import is so impenetrably private. Reading a book driven by the sort of personal fortuity that propels “Home/Land” is like listening to someone recount a dream whose urgency is available only to the dreamer. “Home/Land” is a casualty not of its genre but of its impregnable inwardness.