Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir by Diana Athill is an uplifting memoir chronicling significant moments and lessons learned in this British book editor’s life. Athill writes in a reminiscent voice about important times in her life with honesty and directness. Each chapter is specific to certain events or realizations such as significant relationships, thoughts on religion, or encounters with death. The book is written from the perspective of someone who has acquired many years of life experience (89 to be exact!) and is infused with tidbits of wisdom. Her memoir is not in a chronological sequence or a typical autobiographical format. Rather, she bounces between younger life, middle age, and older adulthood, then concludes with what she discovered about herself. While I have always appreciated the elderly for the wisdom acquired naturally over the years, I was moved with admiration and respect for Diana Athill when I read her story. She writes her story simply as a way to share her experience, which she believed, correctly, to be of value. Her book would particularly appeal to the middle aged and older crowd.
Diana Athill begins her story with a jovial anecdote that sets a light-hearted tone for her book. She first recounts her romantic life – a series of sexual relationships and affairs that are passionate and loving but that never culminate in marriage. When describing her only major heartbreak, she writes not with despair but with an uncanny ability to speak truth on the matter, such as when she states that “a broken heart mends much faster from a conclusive blow than it does from slow strangulation” (Athill, 2008 20). Next, Athill discusses her thoughts and beliefs regarding religion or lack thereof and shares her firsthand experience with death when taking care of her dying mother. Afterwards, Athill lightens the mood by telling the reader about her various hobbies or “escapes,” as she likes to call them. She describes her adventures in gardening, drawing, pottering, and reading, her favorite pastime that lead to a career in book editing, publishing, and ultimately, much to her surprise and delight, writing.
Although Diana Athill’s escapades take up the bulk of her narrative, the heart of Somewhere Towards the End lies in the few concluding chapters. Athill relays how discovering she had an ability to write and publish written works helped her to heal in ways she did not even know she needed. First, by the public’s acceptance and enjoyment of her books, she gained a boost to her self-esteem. Also, by speaking in public events as an acknowledged author she overcame her shyness. Athill takes a whole chapter to recount her only two regrets in life, which she confesses have still never tormented her in any way. Her most poignant moments come from her musings on life, growing old, and the inevitability of death, which she views not with anxiety, but with comfortable acceptance.
Diana Athill attended the distinguished OxfordUniversity and is considered one of the great book editors of the twentieth century, which adds to her credibility. Athill writes with a candor that is both insightful and refreshing. Her style of writing makes the reader feel almost as if they are having a conversation with Athill about her life as opposed to reading a book about it. Although at times I disagreed with her perspective on particular subjects, it never altered my opinion of her and I found that it was precisely her openness about potentially uncomfortable subjects that made her book so engaging. One of the most enjoyable aspects, and surprising as well, was how Athill turned a relatively unremarkable life into an absolutely delightful read. She tells her story with no added frills or melodrama yet I felt absorbed from the very beginning. Despite the fact that I am less than a third of her age, I could connect to many of her experiences and there was a lot to take from her story. Even the British vernacular throughout the book could not detract from her story but rather added a distinctive flair.
Somewhere Towards The End was truly a pleasure to read. My only qualm would probably be that I felt Athill could have wrote even more! While she does not seem to be writing for a particular audience, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good read but especially to those who like biographical non-fiction. I believe older people would really appreciate this piece as well. In her last chapter, Athill says that “one doesn’t necessarily have to end a book about being old with a whimper, but it is impossible to end it with a bang” (Athill, 2008, 182). Perhaps not, but Diana Athill concludes her book with a final resounding note that lingers in your heart.
Athill, D. (2008). Somewhere Towards The End