“Perhaps there is one book for every life,” writes author Katharine Smyth at the beginning of her debut, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf. For Smyth, that book is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and it’s the prism through which she examines the death of her beloved father and the surprising turns that grief can take.
Though it’s categorized as a memoir, what Smyth accomplishes defies the genre. Her story is an intimate exploration of the domestic drama that unfolded in her own family, in which she was the sole child of a larger-than-life alcoholic and a long-suffering mother who stood by his side. Smyth takes us through her childhood in New England, where summers on the coast were the backdrop to the special bond between daughter and dad, to the tumultuous home life of her teen years, to the rhythms and routines of hospital and hospice care during her father’s later years. In her intimate memoir, however, she also weaves in a biography of Woolf, literary analysis of Woolf’s masterpiece and meditations on the nature of marriage, family and loss. Readers with a passion for Woolf will find the reading experience enriching, but even those with a cursory knowledge of her work will be able to glean the major themes that resonate in Smyth’s interpretation of it.
The memoir is a quiet book; its private tragedies are the consequence of a slow physical and emotional decay at the hands of her father’s disease. Still, Smyth’s prose pulsates with intensity, and its lyrical qualities make it a moving one. Grief and its disconcerting effects take center stage. “It’s writers like Woolf, their refusal to give in to popular ideas about bereavement, who have helped me to accept the nature of this misery,” Smyth writes. With her first book, Smyth is able to give that comfort to a new generation of readers as well.