Reading the Stella Prize Shortlist – Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright


I finished Fiona Wright’s collection of essays, Small Acts of Disappearance, a week ago. I enjoyed it while I was reading it. Actually, ‘enjoyed’ is not the right word when you’re reading about someone’s experience with anorexia… Rather, I was interested and engaged. But now, a few days out, the guts of Wright’s message evades me. What parts of her story have lingered?

There are ten essays in the collection, each examining the author’s battle with anorexia at different stages of her life, and in relation to broader concepts about hunger and size. For example, an essay about her time in hospital sits alongside an essay about how Australian authors have used anorexia in their stories.

The stories aren’t chronological but the link between each – hunger – is clear. Wright’s multiple takes on hunger is certainly the most striking element of the collection. Without trying to garner sympathy, she matter-of-factually tells of the seductive and addictive feeling of hunger, as well as exploring its biological, historical and political manifestations –

“My hunger, and its rules, have been with me, always, for almost all of my adult life…. I still don’t know who I am without my hunger; without its structures that support me too, its scaffolding.”

The essay about Wright’s time in Sri Lanka as a fledgling journalist, In Colombo, stands out. During her stay, she contrived ways to avoid eating, and at the same time was writing articles about the extreme poverty in Sri Lanka –

“Hunger is only political, only poignant when it is abnormal, when it is usual and strange: in a place where hunger is so prevalent, one hungry child with an imaginary cricket bat was just a colour piece in the weekend section of a newspaper. But my hunger, singular and self-circling, was a crisis in my hometown.”

I was particularly intrigued by the essay In Miniature, which drew on studies of 18th-century miniatures and scaled replica houses to examine a person’s sense of size. I was equally fascinated by In Berlin, in which Wright referred to the Minnesota Starvation Experiment and the experience of prisoners in German labour camps during World War II to explore the power of hunger –

“The body never forgets starvation. I think of my grandfather, still keeping old, but repairable watches, promotional DVDs from Sunday newspapers, recycled pieces of string inside his cupboards, having come of age in the Depression.”

There are advantages to choosing essays to tell her story. By incorporating external elements – from referring to the stomach as a ‘nerve centre’ in the body to exploring the German use of food as cultural identity, Wright deftly steers the collection away from the ‘misery memoir’ or ‘sick-lit’ zone. However, as potentially stand-alone essays, key concepts must be repeatedly established, which can make the language seem repetitive and can read as a tiny, tiny bit self-obsessed (I’m looking at you, essay about a friend’s death).

I guess my main problem is this: I have no real sense of where Wright’s journey will end, or in fact, what direction it’s taking – surely there is no such thing as a ‘recovered anorexic’? Like any addiction (whether it’s hunger or drugs), it’s a lifelong battle and Wright’s essays indicate she remains teetering on a precipice.

“I’ll always remember the particular intensity that malnutrition brings on, I know that I miss it still.”

Wright admits to being afraid of living ‘sub-clinically’ and acknowledges that she misses the simplicity of her illness. Her hunger protected her from other emotions and surrendering hunger also meant re-engaging –

“I still watch undiseased eaters having dinner and wonder at their thoughtlessness, their ease.”

But despite her honest, forthright and beautifully put-together words, I’m not convinced she has re-engaged. Yet.

3/5 Strong but repetitive.

Will it win the Stella? I don’t think so.

18 responses

  1. I know it’s not ‘sick-lit’ but I really, really don’t want to read books like this. One of my friends used to work with very sick girls who had this condition, and I found it very draining just hearing about them.

    • Although this is a short book (I think less than 200 pages), that’s exactly how I found it toward the end – draining. Wright’s anorexia started because of (linked) to another condition which manifested itself with involuntary vomiting – after eliminating trigger foods from her diet she found that hunger was easier to manage than vomiting, and so began anorexia. Although she may have started from a different place, the familiar elements of anorexia are there – control, warped self-identity and self-obsession. It is hard and tiring reading and in this case, the research she pulls in about other aspects of hunger provide light relief (without them, I would have been less likely to read it).

      • This does sound draining, but that last quote you pulled hit me hard–I have a chronic illness (not an eating disorder) that makes eating “normally” almost nonexistent, and that’s what I think of sometimes, watching people able to order whatever they want in a restaurant.

      • I found that quote particularly interesting because I did think that it applies far more broadly, so thank you for sharing that it does (for example, does it go the other way, with people who are obese looking at people who are very thin thinking “How can they NOT eat?”).

  2. Clearly I liked it more than you did, Kate, though I rather agree about the essay on the friend’s death. That one didn’t quite fit in it.

    I didn’t find it particularly self-obsessed. In fact, I thought the essay structure enabled her to reduce that aspect of a memoir by focusing her on topics, like the miniatures, books, etc. It is such a complex condition that is still very misunderstood – i.e. too often seen to be simply about appearance and weight. I think she has deepened my understanding of it – and no, I’m not sure that you can ever fully recover once it’s had its hooks into you. But I think like many conditions people have, it can probably be managed. But, I’m no expert!

    • I loved your review Sue – you delved into the writing element which, I must admit, I didn’t have the energy to think about by the end!

      The essay about the friend’s death really jarred with me, at the expense of the other essays. It was that one where I felt self-obsession crept in. I was interested in the fact that there was very little mention of her family and their thoughts on her condition. I only mention that because my impression of anorexia (like you, I’m no expert) is that it is a mental illness that manifests physically and that much of it is bound in issues of control. Furthermore, anorexics often have fraught relationships with their parents (again, control issues). I’m not sure where this impression has come from but I would have liked to know more about her relationships.

      And I agree, there is still lots to understand about anorexia.

      • It’s great reading different reviews from bloggers of books you’ve read isn’t it? We all have our different styles.

        The family issue is an interesting one. I got the sense from a couple of comments that the relationship was OK but it is interesting that she doesn’t talk about. It may be because she developed the condition at 19 years old and pretty independent. She’s different to someone who developed it at 13 or 14 years old. Anyhow, I think the fraught family thing is another of those overstated things about anorexia, like the appearance-focus thing. From what I see the most common feature in women with anorexia is not family relationships or desire to look/be thin, but that they are bright, high-achieving with high expectations of themselves, often highly empathic, like to please others, and that they find it hard to live up to all this. Fiona fits these moulds. Controlling food becomes a simple way of controlling their lives. As Fiona says, she misses the simplicity and I think she means that when you focus on food so much you excuse yourself, in a way, from all those other pressures. It’s simpler! (I have read about and followed anorexia for around 30 years or so – no, I’m not a sufferer, I find it hard to understand not enjoying food! – but I have been close to sufferers over the years).

  3. I found Small Acts of Disappearance an engaging an well written read, but I finished it with a strong sense of uneasiness. I have found it difficult to put my finger on why I reacted like this. Part of it is that my mother was a nurse in an eating disorder clinic and I knew her stories. Also there was the nostalgia and pleasure expressed about anorexia. And the essay on miniatures trod a difficult line between beauty and horror – the latter won out for me and I kept returning to the frightening mental image of starving bodies. I enjoyed being challenged in this way but also found it an uncomfortable experience.

    • Actually, you’ve put your finger on the word I was looking for – uneasiness. Rather than the self-obsession, it was the constant revisiting of hunger, and how she ‘missed it’ that I didn’t like (which is why I finished the book thinking there was no direction, no conclusion – obviously alarming!). I also finished feeling uneasy about lots that I’d read.

    • I think this is the challenge of the condition, Senga (and Kate), that difficult line. And I think it’s that, more than anything, that Wright captures so beautifully (to me) in the book. Uncomfortable reading, yes, but real and, to me, important for us to understand so we won’t continue to see sufferers as those vain and stupid women but start to understand the horrible bind they find themselves in.

      I don’t think she yearns for the simplicity (the nostalgia and pleasure) because she “wants” to but because the condition – hunger – provides a focus that enables her to withdraw from a complex world that for her is still a challenge to live in.

      • I’ve had more thoughts on this book (sign of a good book, right?!) – I think my overall impression at the end of the book was that there was an element of glorifying hunger, one that I can’t feel okay about. Maybe I got completely the wrong message and maybe that wasn’t Wright’s intention but she does write very well and the crispness of her language conveyed that to me.

        I marked at least a dozen passages where she talked about missing starvation/ hunger/ malnutrition. I know it’s her experience and she can write what she wants but let’s just say I wouldn’t want my daughter or son to read it and think “That sounds really good!” (Because she does make it sound good and powerful in some bits except that if you understand anything beyond what’s on the page, it’s the hunger which controls her, not the other way around. And it will control her forever).

        It’s a book I’ll probably reread parts of and a couple of the essays will stay with me. ‘Uneasy’ remains the best description for how I feel about it (which of course doesn’t mean it wasn’t good writing because it is).

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  5. I hope you don’t mind my continuing this discussion Kate. I enjoy teasing things out, but if you want to stop, just delete my comment.

    I agree and don’t agree with you, but you’ve clarified more now your reaction and that’s helpful. Here’s what I feel. I don’t think she “glorifies” hunger. I think she explains the attraction of hunger which is part of the pathology of the brain of an eating disordered person. She does, I agree, mention missing it – I noticed many references too – but I read more chagrin and a feeling of being conflicted than glorification in those comments. So, to me, she showed that she’s still struggling with living a “full-sized” life. She knows the life of hunger is unhealthy, and that it doesn’t really make her happy, but hunger for her, in the state she’s in, both simplifies life and heightens the senses. The former (simplifying life) is appealing if you find life difficult to manage, and the latter (heightened senses), is appealing, unfortunately, if you’re a writer. She’s excruciatingly honest about the experience and the struggle to recover – is how I read it. In most of the book she tries to excuse her “contracting” the disorder as the result of her rare vomiting condition. She tries to say that there was a physical cause, that it was not a mental cause, but then in the last chapter, with amazing baring of the soul, she admits that there were signs of a tendency long before the vomiting condition.

    I think she knows only too well that it controls her. So, I felt uneasy too but not because I think she’s trying to glorify or even proselytise hunger, but because she shows how much it can get you in its grips. Truly, truly, scary, because yes, chances are it will always control her (hopefully not to a life-threatening level as it clearly has.) I can understand your not wanting to give it to your son or daughter to read, though I suspect a healthy person would not be attracted to hunger, no matter what she says. I think this is a book for other sufferers and for people who know, live with or work with sufferers.

    Sorry for rambling … and, as I said, delete if you like. I won’t be offended.

    • No deleting – this is what I enjoy about blogging!

      The great thing about this book is that it has made me think, as have these discussions. The fact that her condition ‘began’ with another condition kind of threw me from the outset because all of the hallmarks that I knew of (body image issues, control issues, family issues) weren’t there. But then, as you noted, she also kind of chucks it out there that it *may* have all started much earlier. One of the bits that I thought was very telling was when she ran into a school mate at the clinic – she mentions being surprised by this to her sister and her sister was NOT AT ALL SURPRISED. Equally, her experiences on exchange to Germany when she was 16 – there’s plenty of suggestions that it may have all been deeply rooted much earlier in her life than you think at the beginning of the book.

      You managed a really good analysis of the writing/ hunger interface and I can appreciate the feeling of ‘heightened senses’ – I think by the end I felt a little too drained to reflect critically on the finer detail, particularly because my overwhelming feeling at the end was “OMG. Like all addicts, she’s never ‘cured'” – she talks about this in detail in a section about living ‘sub-clinically’ – it was almost as if it hadn’t occurred to her that it was the rest of her life until she wrote it down…

      One thing for sure, this book made me want to revisit fictional books which include characters with anorexia – the ones she mentions but also others such as Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly (and although de Rossi’s memoir is looked down on, I’d be interested to read).

      • Thanks Kate – I thought from the way you were discussing this that you like me do like blogging to result in this sort of discussion. And oh yes, I can related to your OMG moment. It’s something I’ve come to realise about this condition in recent years. I think a few are pretty much completely cured but people like her who have been in its grips for years are, I agree with you, like addicts and will have to watch themselves carefully always.

        I was thinking again too about your and Senga’s comments re unease and discomfort. It reminded me of how I feel when I see an obviously anorexic person out and about, particularly young girls, perhaps with their parents. My heart sinks to my boots and the pain I feel is intense. It’s a terrible terrible condition. I think this is why I liked this book, it’s such an articulate reflection/description of the experience. I’ll try to read Butterfly sometime too.

      • Butterfly is well-worth a read. Apart from the fact that Hartnett writes so well, it’s probably interesting from an almost ‘historical’ perspective – it was written when eating disorders were very much the domain of teenage girls with self-esteem issues.

        The interesting aspect of Wright’s book is that she smashes that stereotype (and talks about how her condition started from a different place). Broader understanding of eating disorders is important – it’s prevalent in older women and increasing in teenage boys (both groups ‘get away with it’ for different reasons, where as people are on the look-out for teenage girls with disordered eating habits).

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