Book Review : The Clearing

The Clearing – A Memoir of Art, Family and Mental Health, by Samantha Clark

At the beginning of The Clearing we meet Samantha Clark as an excited six-year-old, sitting in the back of the car on a drive through Scotland with her Mum and Dad. She is astonished by the space rolling out around her, it opens up her imagination. On the next page Clark is in her early 30s, unsure what to do next, the appeal of her successful but unsettled artist lifestyle beginning to pall. Alone in Basel for a residency she finds herself in hospital in a terrible state, a ‘puzzling ache’ had erupted into a full-blown emergency requiring major surgery. Clark tells us of needing to call her mother– well wouldn’t we all want to do that if lying alone and scared in a hospital, far from home? – but Sam must call her mother now because she “was not sure I’d be able to sound normal if I called at the time we previously agreed […] I had to call my mother now while I could still manage to pretend that everything was fine”.

I’m sure many grown up children – myself included – try to protect our parents from our misfortunes, avoiding raising issues simply for a calmer time of it.  In Clark’s case the storm which would ensue if she didn’t call her mother when expected is so much worse than many of us will ever have to cope with.  Just after the spacious childhood drive through Scotland Clark’s mother became terribly ill and the family’s world shrank. Her mother’s mental illness is devastating, it causes a need to control everything, she is ruled over by the telephone and the clock – the anxiety manifesting in huge part in her need to know where her children are and that they are safe at all times, full blown panic and the police called if they are even a second late home.

After her parents die within 18 months of each other the family’s Glasgow home must be cleared. Clark’s descriptions of the filthy and neglected house (no help had been allowed in, despite many offers) are interleaved with her memories of growing up in an environment ruled by her mother’s anxiety and her father’s quiet acceptance of the role of constant carer. Her mother has been on medication for as long as Clark can remember, and though the drugs allows her a kind of life it is far from an ideal one. Samantha’s father copes by retreating to his world of radio and model planes, she herself into being there, but not really being there – a kind of hiding in plain sight. There are periods of ‘normality’ when both parents go to work and they seem like an ordinary family, but these are overshadowed by episodes of illness. Clark’s descriptions of these episodes are forceful, I could feel her mother’s panic and anxiety, and the young Samantha’s fury at this life she simply has to put up with because she is only a child.

As I read, I discovered a memoir filled with lots of love, and also with sorrow, anger and frustration. Clark doesn’t flinch in recounting her anger at her mother. How as a young adolescent she keeps herself locked down and separate, telling nothing important about her life – a way of keeping her dreams safe. She is determined not to follow her mother to that ‘place of endless fearfulness’. Clark’s older brothers occasionally return to visit with the scent of freedom – new friends, new places – about them, her planned means of escape is to do well in her exams and get into art school, away from home – and with gritty determination she succeeds. Then, despite everything, she describes understanding as an adult that her mother’s ‘kinked and damaged’ love was love nonetheless.

The death of both parents so close together leaves space to be cleared. The Clearing of the title is the clearing of physical space, dealing with the rooms filled with belongings accumulated over 45 years of a couple’s life. It is also about the changing nature of space – space which appears to be filled with nothing but is really filled with connection of one kind or another. Clark describes the space between her parents’ chairs, in the basement room they hardly ever left as “the space in which I grew to adult hood […] The task before me is to understand the elusive dark matter that lay at the heart of this home”.

There is more in The Clearing than a retelling of what happens to those who remain after death in the family. The book is woven through with compelling sections on such subjects as the Subtle Ether and Dark Matter, of light and flight. Clark is fascinated by the stuff in the spaces in between things. Throughout her work as an artist she has been “groping about for the ether, without ever really knowing what was driving it all”. More than any other book I’ve read, The Clearing demonstrates how false the divide between ‘arts’ and ‘science’ is. The writing flows seamlessly; from a description of the inherited piano, to picking out a phrase remembered from childhood listening, to the idea of sitting in the dark to learn it’s lessons, to the unreliability of belief, and landing at Vera Rubin’s work on dark matter.

The Clearing is a memoir which deserves to be widely read. It is a beautifully written book, an honest and articulate account of growing up with a terribly mentally ill parent and how that affects an entire family even beyond that parent’s death. In taking us along on her search for an understanding of what happened Clark has written an ultimately uplifting book which I’ve thought about often between reading it and writing this review.

The Clearing is published by Little Brown and is out in paperback on 4th March.

Thank you so much to Sam for contacting me and sending a copy of the book. Sam’s website is samanthaclark.net

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