Every month, we shine the light on a book from our collection – one which is new to the library, which has been particularly enjoyed by a borrower, recommended by a volunteer, or which seems salient to the month’s events or happenings. To see the archive of past books of the month from this year, click here.

The current book of the month is…

October: Unexhausted Time by Emily Berry

 

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As the days draw in and coziness beckons, we might reflect on the end of summer. In some ways, it can feel like a season of release; from buildings and walls, thick clothing, and schedules in the form of work or school routines. Perhaps this year particularly so, with its second, more convincing ease of lockdown restrictions breaking our long hibernation. And into this time of opening up came Emily Berry’s third collection Unexhausted Time (2022) – recently added to the OPL’s shelves – a work which blurs boundaries, yet longs for them.

For those familiar with Berry’s previous work, this book offers both a progression and a departure. Where her second collection, Stranger, Baby (2017), with its oceanic emotion, might have felt like a flood, Unexhausted Time feels more like a fever, a ‘ceaseless’ summer heat which gets into one’s blood. Characteristic stylistic indicators resurface – collage technique, comedic moments, and fierce figurative clarity among them – but there’s a shift in focus from deep personal grief, centring around the loss of her mother, to a broader consideration of death and search for solace in the face of its ‘permanent kind of ceasing’. We’re presented with an unrelenting dilemma: ‘How can a person walk in a shroud / all the miles of their life. But how / can they shrug it off’. 

In response we find prayers for ‘a kind of faith’, spiritual comfort, or some form of ‘God’. Here, though, ‘God doesn’t answer prayers, people do’, and so the collection turns its search towards communion with others and the distractions of embodied experience: the touch of air, the redness of a flower. The communion includes voices of Berry’s friends (who have let her ‘borrow from their lives and/or dreams’), filmmakers, singers, therapists, playwrights, and there is also space for a reader to connect with their own thoughts and  memories.

But connection is complicated. Closeness is, at times, perceived as comfort, ‘Thank you for rescuing me with your words’, or as blissful distraction – another coming to us ‘wired and wild’. At other times ‘intimacy is too much or it’s not enough’ and ‘the soul … yawns open for lack of reply’. Berry has said that a description by psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott – ‘artists are driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide’ – resonates strongly for her and this tension is evident throughout the collection, both in oscillating clarity and opacity for the reader and in switches between intimate and distanced relationships within the text itself.

The effect is an uneasy porosity, through which one experiences frequent moments of sharp recognition and connection. Yet, while many of those moments occur from visceral imagery, even metaphors are characterised as spells ‘cast / to keep us away from the source’. And this juxtaposition between opacity and openness is reinforced still further by the text’s fluidity. Even the relatively accessible second section, with its more conventional narrative style and visually tangible structure (firm titles and justified blocks of text), shares surreal stories which jolt and float like dreams. But it is the flux of the first and third sections which perhaps provides the most ambivalent moments.

The collage form in these two sections is inherently slippery. It doesn’t obviously foreground particular elements; emphases are almost ‘imperceptible’, or may be chosen by the reader. Moreover, its prismatic structuring of thoughts, dreams, memories, and occurrences is bolstered by other fragmenting elements such as deixis which shift, allowing people, locations, and times to slide into each other. For instance, the ‘I’ pronoun is used to signify different people at different moments, implying multiple voices belong to the central persona: ‘they’re all me’.

Dreamlike uncertainty not only facilitates Berry’s uneasy communion, it serves another important purpose for the collection: creating ‘a fantasy world’ in which one can ‘travel freely’ through place and time. This blurring is a key approach in the text’s search for solace in that it encourages and reflects free association, a psychoanalytic pathway to understanding and healing, a space in which even ‘the future / can influence the past’.

For a book with so many voices, many of which refer to slipping time, it’s interesting that one of the most frequent comes from La Jetée, a film by Chris Marker featuring a time-travelling protagonist who is ‘marked by an image / from childhood’. The marking image is two-fold: as a child he witnesses his own death without realising it and, in the same moment, is distracted by and falls in love with a beautiful woman. He searches for, connects with, and then loses her – only to search again. There could be a sense of Unexhausted Time following a similar journey; the distractions here being moments of communion, intimacy, and embodied experience, ways to shrug off the ‘shroud’.

But this text is fluid enough for each reader to experience it very differently. Or even very differently at different times. Berry has expressed an intention to step away from understanding as objective in favour of sharing a more instinctive connection with the reader. She believes music ‘goes straight to the place where it’s already known’ (on the Faber website, she shares her own soundtrack for the collection) and explains that this is essentially ‘a book about feelings’, in which she is trying to ‘sing’. It’s an ambitious, experimental intention and one which is largely realised. So perhaps have a read to see where ‘it’s already known’ for you, or simply sink into the beauty of its song.