Memoir: Lanie Tankard Reviews Martha Cooley’s Memoir About Loss

by Matilda Butler on April 25, 2017

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #114 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Matilda Butler

Memoir Structure–Notes, Essays, Book

Recently, Lanie Tankard and I spoke about a review of Martha Cooley’s new memoir entitled Guesswork: A Reckoning with Loss. Lanie felt the book would be of considerable interest to our WomensMemoirs community for the quality of the writing, for the content (coping with loss), and for the structure or progression of her writing. Lanie said, “the fact that she started writing free form in her journal, developed essays from that, and then blended them into this braided memoir” reveals writing in a way that may provide insights.

I agreed and think you will too. Below is Lanie’s book review. Be sure and let us know what you think.


Guesswork: A Reckoning with Loss

by Martha Cooley

Published by — New York: Catapult

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

“I dreamed I was a single moment in a single day.
A note struck and vanished.
A sounding.
A reckoning.
—Jeanette Winterson
The World and Other Places

Martha Cooley, author of two best-selling novels: The Archivist and Thirty-Three Swoons, found herself facing a mountain of grief, having lost eight friends in the space of ten years. Her solution? She withdrew from Brooklyn to Italy—there to grieve in a hamlet from the Middle Ages. Her remedy? Writing.

Guesswork is the memoir Cooley created there through essays she composed in Castiglione del Terziere, where she lived with her husband in a castle being restored by Loris Jacopo Bonomi—who created an important library in the castle and made the entire village into a cultural center. She weaves Bonomi’s fascinating story throughout her memoir.

Death continues to surround her. She and her husband spend a week on Isola del Giglio, just when a cruise ship snags a rock near one of the three small villages on the island and begins to sink. She and her husband are on a granite bluff overlooking the port when she notices a “half-submerged carcass of a boat.” The captain abandons his ship. Passengers die. Bewildered evacuees wander the streets of the little town where she’s staying. Here, then, is another thread Cooley braids into her memoir.

Yet all these memoir vignettes are but a veneer glazing over the recurring heartbeat of Cooley’s distinct and unifying idea—a mother/daughter relationship. Guesswork is a venue for Cooley to weigh the approaching death of her mother back in the United States. She considers her own identity using the lens of her mother’s blindness from retinitis pigmentosa. How did her mother’s inability to see her daughter affect Cooley’s development as she grew up? Once, her mother was able to read books to her children. Now her children must read books to their mother. Since words are Cooley’s life, she understandably casts a writer’s self-doubts against her mother’s queries about her daughter’s productivity.

Cooley combines day-to-day observations of people residing amidst antiquity with reflections on deprivation through death—the fact of no longer having someone in your life. Such a reckoning with loss enlarges in scope as Cooley pulls in poets, philosophers, musicians, and literary figures.

She upends grief, dissecting it from various angles. What is it anyway? Remorse? Heartache? Intense sorrow? Anguish? She employs all the standard guesswork methods—conjecture, presumption, deduction, reasoning, and speculation— to calculate her position. Her emotionally expressive writing utilizes an appropriate degree of detachment to avoid becoming maudlin as she muses.

Martha Cooley’s memoir began as a journal, “meandering without purpose.” Eventually this roaming evolved into essays, some of which were published in various literary magazines. In the end, she collected them all into this book, as one might gather flowers into a lovely bouquet—one that any florist would be proud to deliver.

Guesswork is a well-crafted memoir, serving as a testament to the actuality of our presence as well as a meditation on the impermanence of our being.

Available April 25, 2017: $16.95 paperback (ISBN 978-1-93678-746-3), 192 pages.
Edited by Leigh Newman
Publishers Group West
Perseus Books Group


Lanie-Tankard-2015Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

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