What the Dickens?

A BU alum recounts a fellowship in the Falklands with a mix of memoir, travelogue and fiction.


Bleaker House by Nell Stevens

Published by Doubleday, 256 pages, $25

Writing a book about not writing a book is a clever concept. Nell Stevens, who went to the remote Bleaker Island in the Falklands to write a Dickensian novel after earning her MFA at Boston University, actually spins many disparate tales—spurts of fiction, memoir, outlines and overarching literary concepts—instead of that stillborn book.

Being in Lonelyland invites self-reflection, which Stevens pursues with curiosity. She muses on her relationship with an unstable musician back home and their bittersweet, guilt-provoking breakup. And her descriptions of the island’s wild nature, her almost-only companion, are worth the trip—and indeed novelistic. There’s bleakness alongside beauty: Black and white dots “bloom into penguins.”

In one fictional interlude, she imagines an Englishman named Ollie whose Falkland Islander father died in a toaster accident soon after his conception. Years later he’s told his “mad as a box of frogs” father is actually alive, so he travels to Bleaker Island to find the truth. Stevens plays around with how the story might go, using abrupt endings that tingle with suspense.

Stevens cites Boston University professor Leslie Epstein’s writing tip sheet, including the maxim “Do not look into your own heart and write; look into someone else’s.” Stevens uses that idea elastically, plunging into her real self, her writerly self and indeed into the Dickens of Bleak House while inventing lively fictional companions who populate her lonely, beautiful island.

From Page 118: As I stomp through mud and stones towards a herd of uninterested cows, I engage in furious debates with him in my mind—and gradually, though I don’t realize it at the time, out loud.
     Hunger is good discipline, Hemingway says. I grumble back, kicking through puddles, that earning enough money to feed yourself properly, or packing enough supplies, would actually show better discipline.

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