Kate Zambreno’s work blends memoir, art criticism and literary history/gossip to brilliant effect, and in recent years, her books have become even deeper and richer as they have been suffused with the experience of early motherhood. The Light Room, like her 2021 book of literary criticism, To Write as if Already Dead, records the impossibility of finding time and space to write as a new mother. But instead of suffering from these restrictions, the book blossoms because of them, written in furious spurts that both describe and embody the stolen moments between feeding, waking and sleeping.
The Light Room offers readers who are new to Zambreno a perfect entry point into the patterns of thinking and writing that her work is known for. As it follows a daily record of Zambreno’s life with small children during the COVID-19 lockdown—the groceries, the laundry, the mess, the exhaustion and the outings to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York—the book also considers the developmental experience of pandemic babies who see unmasked faces only at home and who haven’t yet met their extended families. Zambreno tracks experiments in early education during a pandemic as well, from an outdoor “forest school” to using Montessori methods at home.
The unending domestic care work, however, is balanced by Zambreno’s reading, writing and thinking. Nursing at 4 a.m. while reading Yuko Tsushima’s novel Territory of Light about single motherhood in 1970s Japan conjures a sense of “cozy dread.” A child’s collection of found objects evokes visual artist Joseph Cornell’s box art. Translucent building blocks suggest a literary form for the book itself: a mother writing in tiny increments, stealing bits of time to build, entry by entry, a chronicle of “seasons and exhaustions.”
The restrictions, fear and grief of parenting during a pandemic are ultimately measured against moments of joy and glimmers of beauty, what Zambreno calls “translucencies.” Thinking through Natalia Ginzburg’s 1944 essay “Winter in the Abruzzi,” Zambreno approaches a vital truth that lies at the heart of this memoir: What if these days of domestic constraint turn out, in the long run, to be the happiest time in a family’s life together?