The Life of Stuff by Susannah Walker
People who find meaning in true stories, quality narratives, and learning about the human condition.
In a nutshell:
Author Susannah Walker’s mother was not always there for her. Upon Patricia’s death, Susannah sees that she’s been hoarding, allowing her home to fall into disrepair, and takes it as a chance to try to get to know her mother’s story.
“There had to be thousands of daughters like me who didn’t have a proper relationship with their mothers, but we would never be able to speak up and find each other, because the world was our policeman, always judging us.”
“So much of what my mother accumulated — all those plastic bags and envelopes of junk mail — didn’t have any significance of their own. Their job was to bury the objects that did, to prevent the terrifying misery of the past from ever being discovered again.”
Why I chose it:
I was in a bookshop in a new city. Obviously I was going to get something. I’d also been looking for a book with a more narrative voice but didn’t have any fiction in mind. This was a perfect fit.
Author Susannah Walker studied and worked at one of the most interesting (in my opinion) museums in the world – the V & A in London. She’s fully aware of how we as a society choose to collect items as a way to better understand — or at least keep alive — our histories. So it makes sense that she would approach her mother’s death and hoarding in the way she did: through her mother’s things.
Each chapter begins with an illustration of an object from her mother’s home, and includes some text that you would expect to see next to an item in the museum. That object then frames the discussion of the chapter. We start with Patricia falling in her home and being taken to the hospital, then Walker receiving a shaming phone call from a police officer. Her mother seemed to be improving enough to leave the hospital but couldn’t return to her home which was, in addition to being filled with items, in disrepair, with a broken and open back door, no running water or functioning toilet, and mildew and dampness everywhere. As Walker worked to convince hospital staff that a nursing home would be the best next step, Patricia died, leaving Susannah to sort through what remained.
Patricia and Walker’s father divorced with Walker was young, and she and her brother went to live with their father, only seeing their mother occasionally. They weren’t fully estranged though; Walker still spoke to Patricia regularly, and met up with her for lunch. But they were not close, as Walker always felt unloved. How could a mother sort of abandon her child? And how could a grown child not see that her mother was in such a condition that lead to this hoarding?
Walker takes the opportunity to explore her mother’s life as she sifts through her belongings, and it’s ultimately a sad life, full of loss. As Walker peels back the layers in the house, she also peels back a bit more about her mother’s life, learning more about events in the distant past. Walker lost a sibling on the day she was born; her mother also lost a sibling. Divorce spans generations of the family, and loss seems to be everywhere.
Some of the best parts of the book were Walker’s research into hoarding and how society chooses to classify and exploit the stories of hoarders. She points out that so much focus is on the brain chemistry of hoarders and not nearly enough on what really precipitates their actions: namely, often, a profound sense of loss.
Walker is an engaging writer and storyteller; I was on holiday and read the book over the course of just three days. I didn’t want to put it down. Not because there was anything especially urgent, but because I cared about Walker and her mother and all the people who have experienced loss and found themselves acting the way Patricia did. And I felt for everyone who has complicated relationships with their parents, especially when that parent has died, leaving the relationship unresolved. I’m not keeping it only because I don’t imagine I’ll want to reread it, but I will donate it so someone else can experience it.
Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it: