The Cost of Living is a generous memoir about not very much at all. It’s not that the events Deborah Levy chronicles – the end of a marriage, the death of her mother - are not significant, it’s that she writes about the small moments in between with as much care and precision.
Levy’s marriage has dissolved, along with a particular life she has spent years creating. Quietly, a role she no longer needs to play evaporates into the North London air. Her career is thriving – she’s been nominated for the Booker prize – but she has nowhere to write. When writes at length about the shed she’s borrowed to use as a study, an ordinary space in which to ply her trade, she’s really writing a new way of being, on her own terms, one desk, house plant or bag of groceries at a time.
Those liminal moments are not epiphanies. Women already know the value of a room of one’s own. They are merely expressions of the many inconspicuous ways in which events – and how we react to them – shape a life. Rather than re-invent or claim what feminists have stated before her, Levy adds a thin but specific layer of meaning and experience – her own. It only needs a light touch because it acknowledges what came before.
Letting out anger like a sigh, the writing is honest, unadorned, thought provoking. Without seeming to write about anything at all, she explores the challenges women face in claiming their desires and freeing themselves from the roles imagined for them by men.
Particularly interesting to me was the insight into the interplay between grief and creativity, but there’s a lot there for anyone who cares to assign meaning to descriptions of the mundane. Levy’s memoir is generous because life has a cost – living it, unliving it, writing it – and the reader gets to learn from the writer without paying a thing (except close attention).