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Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
By: 
Diana Athill
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A Memoir

A-Somewhere Towards the EndDiana Athill—in her day one of Britain’s most respected editors and more recently a writer—has penned several memoirs, including Stet: An Editor’s Life, Yesterday Morning, and Instead of a Letter. This memoir won the Costa Book Award for biography, given to writers based in Britain and Ireland.

The Topic: Growing old is a part of life, of course, but it’s not all tea and cakes. That’s the conclusion Diana Athill draws in this memoir. After a career as a successful editor—she shepherded the work of literary giants V. S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, among others, into print—Athill retired at 75. Having experienced profound changes in her life, including losing her interest in sex in her 70s (about which the author is quite frank) and even giving up reading novels for more fact-based reading, the 91-year-old Athill, never married and childless, took up gardening, art, and writing (and would never, ever give up her car). She also cares for her partner, Jamaican playwright Barry Reckford, with whom she has spent the last half century. Her story is full of wit, wisdom, and bittersweet experience.
Norton. 182 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 039306770X

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[Athill] considers the subject from many angles—philosophical, religious, romantic, personal. As an editor of many great writers, Athill writes on this potentially grim subject with clarity, calm, and common sense." Barbara Fisher

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Anyone who’s kept up with the fiction of Philip Roth, Alice Munro or Mr. Updike (to name just the very first writers who come to mind) may feel up to his or her weary, cataracted eyeballs in descriptions of how our grizzled minds and bodies ultimately betray us. Yet Ms. Athill’s book is welcome and original because she is such a robust, free-thinking, nonmawkish presence on the page." Dwight Garner

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"There is something terrifically comforting about a nonagenarian writing with clarity, wit and verve about getting old and facing death—as Diana Athill does in her new memoir. … Although Athill insists she has ‘no solutions to offer’ to what is admittedly ‘a downhill journey,’ we know better: her positive but never Pollyanna-ish attitude sets a tremendous example." Heller McAlpin

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"To readers Athill delivers far more than modest pleasure: Her easy-going prose and startling honesty are riveting, for whither she has gone many of us will go as well. … A refusal to sugar-coat and a commitment to utter frankness, coupled with an engaging style, make Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End unusually appealing, despite its inherently cheerless subject." Michael Dirda

Critical Summary

Somewhere Towards the End isn’t the first book to describe in detail the process of "falling away," the author’s apt euphemism for the decline one experiences in old age. Critics compare Athill’s memoir to John Bayley’s Elegy for Iris and Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, or the fiction of Philip Roth, Alice Munro, and John Updike. But Athill writes with a nothing-to-lose attitude that brings dignity to a process so often marked by the inevitable slowing of the mind and the deterioration of the body. This is a remarkable memoir, not the least for its honest approach to the end of life. "There are no lessons to be learned, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer," Athill writes with ßaplomb. "I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts."