from the editor's desk

Review of ‘The Things We Live With: essays on uncertainty’ by Gemma Nisbet

Nisbet, Gemma. The Things We Live With: essays on uncertainty. Perth: Upswell Publishing, 2023. RRP: $29.99, 220pp, ISBN: 9780645536805.

Maria Papas

I have great love for the personal essay. In the hands of a thoughtful writer, this form can often feel as intimate as having a friend beside you. Certainly, this is what it’s like to read Gemma Nisbet’s The Things We Live With: essays on uncertainty. In this collection, Nisbet is a wise and guiding voice, generous in her reflections, research and ability to navigate life’s complexities.

On the surface, The Things We Live With appears to be a collection of essays about objects and our human relationship with them. As a point of balance or a centre, Nisbet structures ten beautiful essays around the seemingly disparate objects she keeps.

But this is not a book to take on its surface.

In the first essay, Nisbet skilfully weaves her observations of a painting with the grief of losing her father at a young age. She allows us into ‘the cluster of days at my stepmum’s house in England when we sorted through my dad’s possessions’ (9), and in a passage highly relatable to anyone who has ever lost a loved one, she admits, ‘I thought that all those objects connected to my dad’s life would act as inert and immutable vessels into which I could pour memories—mine, and other people’s—for safe storage’ (14). With this, she introduces us to one of her overarching themes: the desire to remember—or the fear we might forget—the people and places that mean something to us.

Prompted by the objects she holds, and then by her memories, Nisbet describes her father as ‘highly organised’, the kind of person who ‘could change a tyre and light a campfire, catch fish and reverse a trailer’ (14). She imagines that he ‘would never be caught unprepared’ (14), but then she also reflects that, ‘I have learnt, since my dad died, that it is a burden to attempt to always appear capable, to give the impression you are in control all the time’ (15), thus gently and briefly introducing us to another prevalent theme: that of mental health.

Mental health is taken up again in the second essay. We watch as Nisbet organises the objects in her attic and of her past. We see her as a child. We ruminate on the intensity of her emotions growing up, and on ‘schooling myself to tuck my feelings away beneath a calm exterior’ (29). She takes us from her attic to her adolescent years, and then to the worlds of Victorian fiction where we are confronted with two familiar representations: that of ‘women deemed “unruly” or in some way disruptive or disobedient’ and that of women who appear ‘spirited but resolutely self-controlled’ (30), thus widening our understanding of cultural products that have long gendered perspectives on emotions and health.

Nisbet then brings us back to the present, and soon enough we come to understand that this isn’t simply a collection of essays that begins with objects and radiates outwards. Instead, these essays and the treasures found within them are more appropriately small satellites. The further we read, the more we seem to circle a larger whole, one that has us reaching out, from time to time, to touch the spectrum between health and illness, or to reflect on anxiety, depression, family legacy and culture.

As Nisbet deepens her explorations, travel souvenirs and letters show us the discord between the self we experience and the self we project for others. An old suitcase raises discussion about the very human impulse to seek order during tumultuous times. And, in my favourite of all the essays—‘Via del Paradiso’—a lost trunk of the sort many migrants bring to Australia, a ruined piano and a prayer book in a language that slips from the tongue and needs to be relearned all prompt reflection, not in relation to the things we keep or live with, but rather in relation to the things we do lose, shed or leave behind.

At its centre, this collection is about narrative. It is about how we seek to construct a story, bring meaning, or cohere a history or experience. It is about our hope for trajectories that privilege triumph, and the uncertainty that arises when such a hope falters and leaves us dissatisfied or even confused, as if a truth has been left unspoken. In one of two title essays, ‘The Things We Live With, Part I’, Nisbet specifically details such a frustration with the illness narrative. She writes, ‘It’s customary, when you’re telling a story about being unwell, to begin with your worst moment. The moment you cracked, broke down, hit rock bottom—whatever you’re supposed to say. But I cannot pinpoint such a moment’ (38). Later, in the same piece—a piece that moves so seamlessly from her work as a travel writer to her experiences of anxiety and depression—she adds that it’s also ‘customary to describe how you got better’ (48), and astutely notes that ‘for me—and many others, I think—things have not been quite so linear’ (48). In raising these concerns, and exploring other ways to tell such a story, she recognises the difficulties of narrative whilst also creating a space for others to explore, with nuance, their own stories.

In a world where so much remains ambiguous or difficult to grasp, this collection is for those of us who also have many ‘things’ to live with, whether these things are physical, mental, spiritual or otherwise. The Things We Live With is for anyone who wishes to sit still a while, or for a reader who likes to reflect. This book contributes significantly to research and explorations around anxiety and depression, but it is not niche. In fact, I would say the themes and ideas throughout—grief, health, identity, culture, heritage, family, longing, loss… I could go on—are so universal that this is precisely the kind of book we will all need at some point in our lives.

Maria Papas holds a PhD from the University of Western Australia where she researched the ways people share narratives of illness and trauma. She has written for TEXT, Griffith Review, Axon, The Letters Page and other journals. Her debut novel Skimming Stones, a narrative about a sibling’s experience witnessing childhood cancer, won the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award. Most recently, her work appears in Teacher, Teacher: Stories of Inspirational Educators. She is a senior school English Teacher and a sessional academic.

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