What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness by Candia McWilliam

I found this to be one of the most incredible books I’ve read in a long time – it puzzled and intrigued me and I felt as though I were having one long rambling conversation with the author. 

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Candia McWilliam after eye op

Candia McWilliam was a successful author and had just joined the judging panel of the Man Booker Prize in 2006 when she began to go blind. This wasn’t blindness as we know it, but something called blepharospasm, a condition where the eyelids won’t stay open.  Candia became ‘functionally’ blind, though, as she said…”I can hardly function at all and can do very little for myself.” She tripped, walked into walls, was unable to read. Listening to books wasn’t nearly as satisfying as reading books, she said – “It is the texture of the text, the touch of the writer’s thinking upon my own thought, the intimacy of interinanimation that I loved and that had accompanied me all my conscious life.”

Initially she was able to see by putting her head right back and staring down through the bottom of her eyelids, though as the condition became worse, she had to get a scribe. Often the book sounds like that to me – that someone wrote things down as Candia spoke about them, remembering things along the way. Some of the book she typed herself by pulling her eyelid up with one hand and writing with the other.

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Candia McWilliam when younger

Apart from being blind while having nothing wrong with her eyes, Candia McWilliams’ upbringing and life was just extraordinary to me – she found her mother dead when she was eight years’ old, she was fat and ugly (she says) when she was young, and then became beautiful, she married and divorced twice and remained good friends with both her ex-husbands and their partners. She was an alcoholic for a long time. She is one of the most complex people I’ve ever read about and I couldn’t stop reading as a result.

She says about writing this memoir:

This books is, among very many other things, an attempt to find my temper in order that I may lose it, and in losing it, find my lost eyes.”

I know some people have found the book irritating, saying that she name drops too much (she does name drop, but only because she knows famous people), that she is too erudite and that the book droned on. I, however, found it enthralling. It was harrowing at times, brutally honest and self-denigrating, sometimes funny – utterly fascinating. She examines her life so closely, and looks right into herself, almost with too much nakedness. There is such sorrow and loss in her life.

In 2009, Candia had an operation on her eyes which took tendons from her leg in order to enable her to open her eyelids, which she described in the book at the end. Image

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Author: Nella

Passionate reader, sometime writer, part-time librarian. I couldn't survive without books. And, I suppose, my children. Or my cats. Or my dog. I read books and look after others.

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