The World Was Whole
I found out about this book during the hazy final days of editing my thesis, a body of work all about Fiona Wright’s first essay collection Small Acts of Disappearance (2015). My first thought was, ‘Oh no, now I have to go back and mention a book I haven’t read so my research is up to date’. It wasn’t until this year that I felt ready to tackle another essay collection, especially one by an author I’d studied so intensively for a year. Boy am I glad I did. Nonfiction lovers: this is a must-read.
In many ways The World Was Whole acts as a sort of sequel to Small Acts, though the two can still be enjoyed on their own. At the centre of both books is Wright’s personal experiences living with anorexia nervosa and anxiety. In The World Was Whole, Wright uses her personal experiences to explore the modern world’s relationship with the home. She doesn’t look at the home as just the physical buildings we live in, or the spaces we interact with, but also the bodies we inhabit and how they can represent both sanctuary and uncertainty.
Throughout the essays in The World Was Whole, Wright examines her own life, which is built heavily upon repetition and routine, both of which are upset constantly by the circumstances of her health and finances. Like many millennials, particularly those with unstable financial situations, Wright rents. This means she is almost always on the move from house to house, from space to space. Forever trying to settle in and make these spaces her own, only to be flung elsewhere by circumstances beyond her control. She gets to the heart of the constant anxiety and uncertainty of renting when she writes: ‘I want to be able to get attached to a place, without knowing that my presence there is always subject to someone else’s needs or whims’.
Another strong aspect of Wright’s writing is her exploration of her own experiences of chronic illness. Within literature there is a tendency towards stereotyping the sick, particularly the mentally ill and female, as helpless victims or self-obsessed attention-seekers. Wright brings a strong current of humanity to her writing, showing what her lived experience of anorexia nervosa is like. She isn’t afraid to critique the limitations of Australia’s healthcare system, which often causes a great deal of grief and frustration for people struggling with chronic conditions. Importantly, Wright describes her illness in terms of the constant shift back and forth between getting better and getting worse, and the anxiety and fear that comes with this flux. ‘On the first day in the hospital,’ Wright writes, ‘I curl on my bed and cry for a full hour after every meal, and I keep thinking, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I don’t think I can do this. I panic at the piece of meat that’s on my plate for dinner, I gulp for breath, great ragged gasps that hurt my sternum and then I sob outside the dining room because I hadn’t realised, somehow, that I’d gotten quite this sick. I’m so afraid of what I’ve done and of who I have become.’
There is a rawness, a brutal honesty, to how Wright writes about her illness that is so important. It’s the kind of writing that gets under your skin, touches something familiar within you and forces you to experience, even for just a moment, what it is like to live with such an illness. The rawness isn’t always shown through pain. There’s also joy. Wright shows the complexity of her life in all its facets, both difficult and special.
Wright’s essays are a delight to read. Often painful, always beautiful, they represent the growing skill and relevance of Australian essayists today. Personal essays like these allow for engaging discussions of issues that affect contemporary society: from poverty to racism and the need for change on a government level. Wright is only one of many Australian essayists using the essay to spark conversation and give readers a new way of looking at these issues by engaging them through the personal, as well as the purely factual. To avid essay readers and newcomers alike, this is a book worth putting on your list this year.
Words and photography by Lisandra Linde